I have just returned from three days plus aboard the Manila Express, my first opportunity since joining The Mission to Seafarers in 2013 to spend a few days living alongside a working crew. I was very grateful for the opportunity. There is no better place to do strategic thinking about the future of Mission work, in a place where, Tilbury to Rotterdam to Hamburg, was extended by a delay in Rotterdam of nearly 14 hours due to cargo handling issues. I was warmly welcomed by the captain and his 24 crew. They could not have been kinder or more hospitable and I was very well looked after. This was clearly a fine ship with good living conditions.  I sensed a happy and positive crew working smoothly together – Indian, Sri Lankan and Ukrainian. It was run, as far as I could see, with efficiency and effectiveness and the captain exuded a quiet confidence, calm and control. He was accessible and engaged with the crew and I was reminded, had I needed reminding, that a key element of the leadership of such a vessel is “community building”. And there was indeed a real sense of community within a context of order and purpose. 25 is a big enough number to generate a good spirit of camaraderie. Birthdays and national festivals are celebrated together. Food, and there was plenty of that, embraces cultural difference within the crew and is monitored by a representative food committee. I particularly enjoyed the regular Sunday night burgers!  Four days aboard gave me a very positive overall impression of a good operation. That was no surprise. I would hardly have been allowed to travel with them had it not been so, I was experiencing very much the good end of the industry.

This was a 4250 TEU container ship on a regular three month circuit from Australia to Europe and back again with a number of calling points in between, including the island of Reunion. I spent time with crew in the engine room, on the working deck areas, and on the bridge, as well as in the living accommodation. With three significant river approaches to ports, including the Elbe, I was able to see some intricate ship handling and tug work, overseen by captain and pilots. It was remarkable. The ship was “parked” with great skill – better, I think, than I often park my Skoda! With Tilbury, Rotterdam and Hamburg following in quick succession rest is limited, and it is often only a few hours between pilot stations. When that is combined with short stays in port, during which the crew have many duties, the pressure is really on. That was especially true in Rotterdam where there was much provisioning and where we took on huge amounts of fuel (of which three types are necessary) – amazingly this “fill up” will take them to Australia and half way back again! The captain tries to organise the crew carefully to maximise rest and to give everyone reasonable time off the ship. That is not always easy, particularly if the ship, as in Tilbury, arrives in the evening and leaves the following morning. Such short stays are common and many are shorter than that. I noted that the majority of crew were from Sri Lanka. Interestingly, this liner route includes Columbo but that is a very short stop only. Local crew do not have time to go home, although it is arranged for families to visit the ship for those precious hours. In Rotterdam, where we ended up staying for almost 24 hours, the workload was so great that I do not think anyone went ashore.

This was, as I have said, a good ship. Nevertheless, there remain those elements of welfare need with which we are so familiar and which are usually associated with long periods away from home and family. The crew were mainly on contracts ranging from six to nine months. I was humbled, as I always am, by what so many sacrifice in order to benefit their families at home, a story familiar in the case of migrant workers the world over. Some I spoke to on board had just got married prior to this contract. How difficult to leave your new wife behind so soon.

The need to connect with family remains immensely important and even in this excellent ship there is still no WiFi provision. Opinions differed as to how soon effective, free (or at least affordable) internet access might be available on this vessel.  However, with on-board WiFi becoming more widespread, it is clear that this will become a key factor for those crew who have the option of working on ships with or without. I wondered if it was felt that permanent on-board WiFi would be good or bad for morale on board? One view expressed strongly was that such access would “normalise” things and prevent the anxiety that often accompanies communications access – and the inevitability that, in the current short slots when WiFi is available, it dominates crew time to the detriment of other relaxation. Satellite phone is available on the ship but is prohibitively expensive. While we are seeing a developing picture overall, and the Mission needs to “watch this space”,  support with communications clearly remains a key element of what we need to offer. Our very extensive network of Centres plays a very important role.

Ship visitation is valued. Access to phone and SIM cards remains a key element. However, literature and conversation was also appreciated. It was clear that the ship often does not get a visit. Some of their calling ports seemingly have no effective ship visitation provision.  However, where there are chaplains and ship visitors, the short length of port stay combines with the often anti-social hours to make it difficult. It can be hard for chaplaincy teams to be available at the times required. I was struck by the need for us to explore carefully with our teams how we can maximise flexibility to ensure that we are meeting the needs of individual ships. When I joined the ship it had arrived after a five day journey from Salerno in Italy. Some crew had a brief few late evening hours to snatch some time there. Tilbury is not the greatest place for a night out but apparently the Tilbury Asda is famous for its chocolate! The crew needed money changed. The Centre was closed. Thankfully, because he had kindly offered to transport me, the Sailors Society chaplain was able to open up for them and do the necessary. It was a reminder of how flexible centres need to be and it is good that many are now geared up to offer a measure of 24 hour unmanned access.

This crew claimed their favourite ports on this particular liner route were in Australia, partly because they have longer time in port there and have more space to chill out.  Also they seemed particularly taken with the chaplains they met and the centres they visited – so it was thumbs up to Flying Angel Australia. However, they were also appreciative of the care they received in a number of other ports.

Those seafarers who had also worked on tankers reminded me of the particular issues facing tanker crews whose sole contact with the shore can often be at the end of a very long pipeline or jetty with minimal chance of shore access. It is an issue we seek to address but which needs a great deal more work.

It was also very clear to me just how important it is that we have the ability, flexibility and appropriate skills to respond swiftly to those emergencies and welfare crises that can come so quickly to individuals and groups, however good their ships.

My voyage reminded me of the value of partnership within the maritime mission and welfare world. It was good to meet the Sailor’s Society Chaplain in Tilbury as well as the Deutsche Seemannsmission chaplain in Rotterdam and one of their ship visiting volunteers in Hamburg. Working closely together enables us to provide the very best service to seafarers and my experience underlined this imperative.

Although these three days of regular port stops with frantic activity imposed particular pressures, it was also clear that on those many longer sea passages when routines become more established and there can be significant amounts of down time (and clearly a great many films are watched!) what opportunities there potentially must be for wider activity, including language improvement and education – and I hope that does not sound too Victorian. Is there a role here for the Mission as part of its wider commitment to support and develop the very best in on-board communities.

Finally, and importantly, families are clearly so important to seafarers, as they are to us all. Many discussions focused on family life. I was left in no doubt that our developing work with seafarer families, most recently through our new projects in the Philippines, Myanmar and Ukraine, are of immense value in our ability to provide a joined-up service which underpins a properly holistic approach to seafarer welfare.

It was an absolute privilege to become, although for just a few days, a member of this community. My thanks go to them all, and to Seaspan for allowing it to happen. I am now following the ship’s progress on Marine Traffic – and feel some sense of belonging.