Andrew’s April Blog 2023

24th April 2023
My recent visit to Panama and Costa Rica was exciting and productive in so many ways.

There was the launch of our new partnership with the Deutsche Seemannsmission, a reception at the British Ambassador’s Residence, visits to ports, and meetings with Government, the Chamber of Shipping, bishops, churches, a maritime college, and local committees.

And then there was the Panama Canal. I met with some of its Pilots and saw (from air and sea) many ships waiting for passage at the anchorages of either end. One of our visions for the future is to build capacity for visiting the ships at anchorage, taking us back to our 1850s roots – as is the case in other places across our network, particularly Hong Kong. It was an encounter on the Panama Canal that particularly sticks in my mind.

The Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering. Watching ships pass down the Canal is an incredible thing, especially seeing them pass through the locks. I stood mesmerised during my recent visit to the country at the Miraflores Locks. They are at the Pacific end of the Canal, which famously (and a great quiz question) is actually further east than the Atlantic end. I looked on, together with a great crowd of tourists. It is a fascinating experience to see the Lock being worked, not least by the six little trains – three on each side – which guide the vessel through the successive Lock chambers.

The ship passing through at the time was a RoRo vessel, a vehicle carrier. I imagine that while it must be immensely hard work, many of the crew enjoy the transit, especially in the daytime and particularly if it is their first time. While we were quite far away, I could see some of them filming on their phones. And then one of them waved. We could just make out that wave and suddenly the whole crowd was waving back. It was a moment of profound connection. I felt extraordinarily moved. I have not checked on where that ship had come from and where it was going to, but it was not unlikely that a long voyage lay behind since the last port and a further long voyage could lie ahead. Many ships passing through the Canal do not stop at any of Panama’s five Canal ports. That crew member could easily be weeks without connecting with another human being (months if he lands in ports where shore leave remains an issue). There was something wonderful about that encounter, albeit many who witnessed it will swiftly forget.

We often speak of the invisibility of seafarers. Most of us are unaware that the world is utterly dependent on them for “90% of everything”. Most are now distant from our lives, not least with so many modern ports being inaccessible and often far removed from regular life. Pandemic restrictions and continuing shore leave challenges have made them even more remote. However, there have been encouraging moments of sudden connection. The pandemic itself brought the profound difficulties of the crew change crisis. This made news in some places and may have been such a moment for some – when the heroism of these essential workers was brought home to us. The impact of the Ever Given’s six-day blockage of the Suez Canal was another, with radically impeded delivery of the things that sustain us unexpectedly threatened. And the coming ashore on a Dubai tourist beach of the long “abandoned” MT Iba in 2021 may have been another. The five invisible crew stuck on the ship for 32 months, suddenly became very visible.

How seafarers need such moments of connection. Sadly, their waving too often goes unseen, unnoticed, or very quickly forgotten.

And I am reminded of that great poem by Stevie Smith “not waving but drowning”. It paints a picture of a man who has been waving, perhaps from the water. They think he is just having a good time, but he was in trouble. Now he is dead. “No, no, no, he was too far out all his life and not waving but drowning”. How often that can be the case, even of those we assume to be the life and soul of the party. That image of that seafarer’s wave being reciprocated by the hundreds watching on at Miraflores is deeply moving in its own way. And that seafarer may well have been happy in his work, enjoying his colleagues and appreciating the 8-to-10-hour passage through a beautiful Canal on a sunny day.

Perhaps, however, it might make us think beyond that to the seafarers who in one way or another may be waving for other reasons, perhaps secretly. As it is for us all, there are moments when they too feel “too far out” – and the challenges they face are great indeed. Only they often have no ready support at hand, no family to sound off to, no friends to share a drink with away from work, no easily accessible sort of neutral support. At The Mission to Seafarers, we want to play our part in making seafarers visible – in making sure others see their waving. At the same time, we are often privileged to meet with them when they are most invisible.

It is our mission to look out for those unseen wavings and to play our part in making sure that a helping hand is at the ready to make sure no-one drowns.


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