An Anxious Boat to China – a story from Lyttelton, New Zealand

29th April 2020
It is the night before our prime minister will announce a nation-wide lockdown, and the Lyttelton Seafarers’ Centre is full. It is only a small place, but every seat is taken and seafarers have spilt outside.

They have come ashore to connect to the Centre’s free wi-fi to talk to wives and kids. They know this will be their last chance to chat to their families for months, as ports worldwide ban shore leave, as part of the Covid-19 response. As many ships do not have wi-fi, contact with home is about to be cut off.

Usually what you hear when seafarers are calling home are happy sounds: a child’s cheery “hello” to a dad they haven’t seen for months; a wife laughing about a funny family anecdote; a father far from home telling his little girl before she goes to bed, “Goodnight darling, I love you.” But tonight, even though they are speaking in Tagalog, Romanian and Russian, one word punctuates all their conversations: “Corona.”

They have a lot to be worried about. One of the crews in the Seafarers’ Centre is from a bulk carrier loading our logs for China. “We don’t want to go,” says Remi from Manila, “but if we break our contract early, we risk not getting recruited in the future.” His friend Jimmy was supposed to sign off (return home) at the next port. “I have been told I can’t,” he says. “The shipping company can’t get a replacement to the ship because of the Covid restrictions. I just want to be with my family.”

Each year, 100,000 seafarers are eligible to sign off and be replaced by new crew members. Now, like Jimmy,  many are trapped on their ships. After weeks at sea, they can no longer get the necessary shore leave to buy essential personal items; to contact their families, and to get a break from the isolation that is the norm of a seafarer’s life. While we are locked-down with our loved ones, our pets, with Netflix, and the chance to get to the supermarket, their lockdown is total isolation.

We don’t normally allow alcohol to be consumed in the Seafarers’ Centre,

but I have made an exception tonight. Quite a bit is being drunk, but the anxiousness on the guys’ faces is easing a little.

Before they leave, I suggest a photo, jokingly saying, “If you are off to China, better get a picture in case you don’t come back.” They laugh and bravely smile for the camera.

Revd John McLister

Seafarers Chaplain, Lyttelton

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