How everyday seafaring has undergone radical change

SeafarersCrew-changeMental health

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a huge impact on the mental health of seafarers. Seafaring life is generally very isolating. It is very stressful when seafarers have family back home that are fighting the virus but they are so far away and can do nothing.

The world has changed beyond recognition in the two last months. And for the hundreds of thousands of seafarers who deliver to the world, the situation has worsened exponentially.

Many of them have finished their contracts but are either stuck on board ships or in foreign ports unable to get home. Others are in the reverse situation – unable to start their new contracts, so are currently without any income. Vessels arriving in port are unwilling to allow seafarers shore leave, nor do crews wish to risk infections coming aboard through visitors. Stella Maris port chaplains and volunteers are therefore finding innovative ways to support seafarers through this incredibly difficult time.

The most vital service

The most vital service is helping them stay in touch with their families back home. “We are keeping some of our regular ship crews supplied with top-ups for their phones by replying to requests from the ships via text messages or emails,“ said Peter Barrigan, port chaplain on the Tees in Northern England.

“We pay for them and then send off the top-up numbers. If the ship doesn’t have a reason to return to the Tees, often the master will transfer the money into the Stella Maris bank account. The crews are so pleased that we are willing to provide this service that they do all they can to get the money to us.”

Hugh Ward, one of Barrigan’s team of volunteer ship visitors, recently received a request for 13 top-up cards from seafarers 250 miles away on board a ship anchored off the Thames. One of the crew was the cousin of a seafarer Ward had met when he visited the Philippines two years previously. “The crew had no way of contacting their families. None of the guys had any data left on their phones and no chance of getting any,” said Barrigan.

Stella Maris’ Medway and Dover Port Chaplain John Fogarty received a request for Sim cards from a ship’s crew who had been at sea for 40 days and were desperate to contact their families. Unable to board the vessel, the cards were delivered using a rope and bucket.

Teesport pilots have willingly helped the Stella Maris team by delivering items to seafarers. “One of the pilots took toiletries onto a ship on our behalf and asked if the crew would like any toothpaste. As it happened, the whole crew was trying to share one tube between them and it was down to its last drop! The pilot gave them the two tubes in the bag and then went back to our store to collect five more. The crew were delighted – it’s often the small acts of kindness that can make a difference to life on board,” a local chaplain told.

The Fisherman’s friend

Further North, Aberdeen port chaplain Doug Duncan has been doing washing for a fisherman in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

“Although I am restricted from getting into hospital, my connections there have arranged for a nurse who lives quite close to bring me his washing in a washable bag.

Once dry and ironed, Duncan drops it off at the hospital door and a nurse takes it into the fisherman along with a few extra bits and pieces, such as new socks and underwear, hats, gloves, toiletries and sweets, along with a rosary and a seafarers’ prayer book.

Down on the South coast, Father John Lavers, port chaplain in Southampton, is providing packages made up of sim cards, woolly hats, chocolates, and our monthly magazine for seafarers Stella Maris, which he delivers to the bottom of a ship’s gangway and then notifies the seafarer on watch who comes down to collect it.

“If you’re a seafarer, you work on a ship for months at a time. But now you can’t get off it. People say it’s hard having to stay indoors and only go out once a day. But seafarers can’t even do that. It’s very tough for them,” he said. He knows of a number of seafarers who are in isolation on a ship, and is working with shipping companies to help them communicate with their families back home.”

He suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a huge impact on the mental health of some seafarers. Seafaring life is generally very isolating. It is very stressful when seafarers have family back home that are fighting the virus but they are so far away and can do nothing.

In some cases, Lavers adds, family or friends have died from the virus and the seafarers feel helpless. They can’t leave work, and in many cases they have to work longer than their established contract because they can’t be repatriated right now. Likewise, families back home are deeply concerned when they hear a seafarer is in quarantine or in hospital.

“You also have seafarers at home who can’t go to work to earn money for their family. If seafaring is your life and only means of income, it’s very difficult. This is a very stressful time for seafarers and all those connected with them,” he concludes.

Stella Maris’ annual Life at Sea Report details just a few of the crises we have dealt with over the past year as part of the tens of thousands of routine ship visits to support seafarers worldwide.

Our work has taken on even greater significance during this epidemic with a new set of challenges facing those in the seafaring community.

The new reality may last quite a long time and some aspects of everyday seafaring may undergo radical change. However, one thing that will remain constant is the seafarer’s need for human interaction and support while working thousands of miles from home to keep the world’s supply chains open. Stella Maris is working with corporate partners right across the maritime sector to ensure that seafarers’ human needs continue to be met.