It is a rainy October morning in London when I call up to speak to Revd Ian, who leads The Mission to Seafarers Port Dampier, and which is located in one of our most remote industrial ports in the boiling heat of Western Australia. A small mining town of only 1300 people services the shoreside shipping community which annually brings through and out over one hundred and seventy-seven million tons of iron ore, LNG and salt and other vital products from the local mines back and forward, mainly to China. There are hundreds of ships calling here every month, and the team at the Seafarers’ Centre – with a seasonal staff of around 20 volunteers – has a busy daily programme which in the main consists of ship-visiting in the morning, hospital visiting in the afternoon and running the Centre in the evening, when seafarers come to spend some time off their ships, pick up provisions and call home.

But no week is ever the same. Ian tells me: “I have worked here in Dampier for over 12 years and in the main the day has a steady rhythm. I have built close relationships with crews over the years, as they return regularly and know me well. But one email or phone call will change my whole day or even my week.” 

And so I turn to the reason for my call. This year in the middle of July, Ian and his team witnessed one of the worst weeks the port has ever experienced. Six seafarers were killed beginning on the 10th July, in Cape Lambert Second Officer Kyaw Myat of the MV Hyundai Dangin, drowned when he fell into the water whilst taking the draft readings prior to sailing. This was followed by a death of Andrew Kelly, on-board the supply vessel Skandi Pacific then the death of three fishermen when their trawler was reported missing on the Wednesday. The final death was that of a crane driver who suffered a stroke.  Ian said: “This was a very unusual week, so I was involved with liaising with shipping companies, holding prayers and offering our support to those caught up in these tragedies. We also held memorial services on ships.”

Ian has not always been an Anglican priest. He spent 26 years in the Australian Navy before becoming ordained, and so seafaring is in his blood. He is also an experienced crewman on the local Sea Rescue Group. Out of that work, Ian has developed a counselling model of maritime ministry, which not only offers support to those bereaved, but in this particularly bleak week in Dampier, allowed him to support his fellow rescue team members, who had to deal with loss of life on a scale that they had not encountered before. Ian is clearly a man who you can trust and talk to. He has a bright and cheerful telephone manner, which puts you instantly at ease.

The team has also had to deal with a rising tide of suicide in the port. This sounds so shocking to me in today’s supposedly connected and affluent world. Mental health is becoming the number one problem for seafarers everywhere, with longer voyages leading to isolation, made worse by exhaustion and stress. In a recent Interview with Lloyd’s List Australia, Ian commented “Early identification that a person is at risk of suicide is essential, significantly, here in Dampier over the past ten years or so, in every instance where a crew member was contemplating suicide, it was one of their shipmates who has drawn attention to the fact that their friend was not coping; in the case of the Master, it was a very astute and sensitive Pilot who saw the Masters situation and reported it to the Chaplain.  Following a period of counselling we used the resources that were available and initiated a “buddy system” for the crew members to support and encourage to the seafarer at risk.  With one tragic exception, I am pleased to say that this “Buddy System” is working.”

And this month very sadly there have been two further suicides for Ian to deal with.

I asked him what he thought was the main change that he had seen in the port during his long tenure there. Ian told me, “The Mission’s core work will always stay the same but the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 has given us some peace of mind. We can hold ship agents and owners to account – I still see filthy ships, with no food on board for seafarers, so I can talk about the MLC and contact the ITF where I can. Seafarers are becoming more aware of it themselves but it is up to us at the Mission to promote it.”

The nature of his spiritual work has similarly not changed, although the number of Chinese Bibles being distributed now makes up around 60% of those requested by seafarers. Ian also holds on-ship Bible study groups and is currently working with 18 ships regularly to talk about the Christian faith. He is looking forward to Advent and preparing for handing out extra free food and drinks, along with free WiFi and internet; and they will give away small gifts at Christmas such as phone cards. All of their impressive and extensive Mission work is funded through volunteering and a small income from their Centre retail shop. 

Ian tells me that today in the Centre the temperature is around 42 degrees, which sounds very hot (and appealing) to me. He remembers the English weather well, as he lived in Birmingham UK for four years. He remembers clearly walking down the grey street in the cold and rain in a bleak British winter, when suddenly a ray of sunshine broke through the clouds and made him smile. I have that sense that Ian will always find that welcoming and inspiring light in the midst of darkness; and be able to share that with the seafaring world. Next year – he will be moving to the Mission to Seafarers in Brisbane with his wife Sue. Restriction due to regulations will make ship-visiting more and more difficult. For Ian, It is time to retire, and he says he has been invited to continue ship-visiting in Brisbane and maybe take to more reading and gardening. Good luck Ian & Sue; and God Bless you for all you and the Mission team in Port Dampier are doing – bringing support and a sunny Australian smile  to seafarers in need.