167 Years of The Mission to Seafarers

21st June 2023
Written by the Revd Canon Andrew Wright, Secretary General, The Mission to Seafarers

My old headmaster was fond of telling me that “any organisation that stands still goes backwards”. It is a mantra that I have always found instructive. The Mission to Seafarers, known as Missions to Seamen until the year 2000, hits its 167th birthday in 2023. Throughout its history, it has had to constantly reinvent itself. Its early work took place out in the anchorages, where its purpose-built support vessels took chaplains out to visit crews on sailing ships, firstly in the Bristol Channel, then the Solent and beyond. As sail gave way to steam, work began to focus on providing shoreside hospitality. The organisation grew rapidly, establishing work in numerous ports around the world.  Some of its original buildings survive as current Centres. Others now have different purposes, but you can still often find the famous Flying Angel logo if you look carefully, including (I am told) on our former base on the Bund in Shanghai.

Responding to the times

Like all our colleague organisations, we have had to respond to many other radical adjustments. The focus on the British crews who dominated so much of the global maritime scene for so long gave way to a very different, internationalised workforce. Containerisation, and increasing automation, led to the smaller crews and rapid turnaround times we are so familiar with today. The days when crews were in port for weeks and the Mission organised football tournaments between vessels (usually with the chaplain as referee) have long gone. So, sadly, have the Saturday night dances and parties. We still have one or two football fields and a few specially built dance floors to tell the tale – and indeed some old sea dogs still boast the wives they first met on those memorable evenings.

Support with communication

Then, of course, there was the support with communication, which has always lain deep in the Mission’s DNA. Help with letter writing and posting gave way to rows of telephone boxes in our Centres. These were followed by the provision of access to banks of bulky computers. Now Wi-Fi is provided for the laptops and phones that crews bring themselves – and SIM cards are delivered on board. Increasingly, however, and underpinned by the latest resolutions at the ILO, many crew have access to strong and affordable on-board Wi-Fi.

There has been little opportunity for the Mission to stand still through its long history. Its continuing presence in around 200 ports and 50 countries is, perhaps, a mark of its ability to reinvent and not be left totally adrift from that ship of time, which can so easily leave us all waving hopelessly from far, far behind.

Isolation continues to be a problem

And yet for all the revolutions in shipping, many of the challenges faced by the seafarers of today would be recognisable to their forbears. Long contracts continue to take people far away from their family and friend support networks. Isolation is a real problem, perhaps more so these days when smaller, multi-national crews, together with individual cabins and the lure of laptops, can detract from the supportive community onboard.

The ship’s environment still makes for inherent physical dangers. The sheer hiddenness of the seafarer’s world can still facilitate nasty abuses, not least the abandonments which still form a significant part of Mission workload, and which have grown in number over the period of COVID-19 disruption. And, of course, unexpected global events can hit seafarers with ferocious speed and intensity. Most recently, that has been evidenced by both the pandemic (with its truly dreadful crew change implications, its acute anxieties, and its radical impact on shore leave) and the Ukraine war (with its awful consequences for Ukrainian and Russian seafarers, as well as many others).

This year marks the end of my own tenth year at The Mission to Seafarers. It has most definitely not been a period of standing still! While history will no doubt show we will have made our share of mistakes, and one should always look back with humility as well as with pride, it has been an eventful journey.

New facilities at Port Talbot

The delivery of our services in ports remains our core contribution to maritime welfare. We still run over 120 seafarers’ Centres around the world and, of course, the transport fleets which support access to those Centres. Some of these Centres are large, including some of the historic buildings such as in Mombasa, a Centre which still ranks high in the ratings of many former British seafarers. Some are now much smaller, our new purpose-built facility in Port Talbot, Wales being just one example.

Our Centres need to meet the changing needs of seafarers, be welcoming spaces, provide the right range of services, be sustainable and, crucially, they need to be easily accessible. Modular and mobile models are of particular interest to us, with an emphasis on being within the port. Shared models with commercial partners can also work well, such as is happening with the exciting and radical redevelopment of MtS Hong Kong’s Mariners Hotel.

The pandemic meant most of our Centres were largely inactive for two years or more – and shore leave is proving slow to “normalise”. Combined with the increasing availability of Wi-Fi on-board, how will all this impact on Centre use in the future? They will have a place, but we must remain flexible and responsive.

Ship visitations and personal shopping

All this highlights the need to be as proactive as possible in reaching out to crew. At port level, we do this through comprehensive ship visitation. We sustained that work throughout the pandemic, albeit with visits limited to the gangway only and in a properly distanced way. A key element through this time has been the transformational amounts of personal shopping done for seafarers – with US$3 million worth recorded in 2021, the result of 19,700 shopping trips by our teams. These included medicines and SIM cards and a great deal besides. On one occasion, a ship requested 28 pairs of shoes from our Panama team – and they promptly delivered! We are currently investing £750,000 over three years to expand our ship visitation capacity across all our nine regions, with many new roles already in place.

Port work will remain at the core of what we offer. We continue to grow our global network, adding Egypt in the last two years for example, just in time for us to have been able to support the crew of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal. Our strategy commits us to exploring what we are calling “key hubs”, further developing larger, multi-skilled teams to maximise outreach capacity in identified larger ports where the need is demonstrable. While our teams have always worked “all hours”, I have been particularly keen to encourage a shift-based approach where possible, building on the very positive experience of MtS Singapore who have experimented with a night shift. We will also continue to prioritise our advocacy support globally, but particularly in our Middle East and South Asia Region.

Much is happening beyond our port work. In recent years, we have developed a strong series of wider, complementary programmes. These include our Family Support Networks, now in the Philippines, India, and Myanmar, which enable us to directly support the families of those we are encountering in ports with a wide variety of services. Our WeCare educational programmes are proving very popular with seafarers, their families, and with companies. Financial literacy, the safe and proper use of the Internet and social media, together with suicide awareness, are the current focus. Our Seafarers Happiness Index is also increasingly being used by industry as a benchmark of seafarer well-being.

Chat to a Chaplain

Digital working is a further priority. While we believe that nothing can replace face-to-face work in terms of welfare provision, we absolutely recognise that digital is a vital welfare tool. At the start of the pandemic, we launched our ‘Chat to a Chaplain’ digital programme which proved very important through those difficult days, enabling crew to access help, advice, friendship, even a prayer, remotely. We are building on all we have learnt.

All this has been undergirded by a fundamental and widespread overhaul of the way in which we operate. This has included the “regionalisation” of our global network. We have also redesigned our Head Office, both literally (we moved to a new building in 2022) and in the way its teams operate. Our focus throughout is to ensure that all our work is properly accountable, effectively supported, and has a strong foundation for future creative and flexible development. In line with my headmaster’s mantra we remain, I hope, properly restless but with an unceasing eye on the core values and purposes which have sustained us since 1856.


This article was originally published by Trinity House in ‘The Trinity House Fraternity Review 2023’ magazine.


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