I have just been on holiday. It was not the most successful. I tested positive for COVID-19 on the first day, and my wife followed closely.
Despite being fresh from my latest vaccination, we both felt grim for most of the two weeks (worse than we had the first time around) and much of what we had planned for our break had to be scrapped. My thoughts go all out there similarly under the weather! The virus seems to be everywhere at present.
It was a reminder that COVID-19 is still with us, remains unpleasant and continues to impact on seafarers. Contracting COVID can still be a very difficult experience for seafarers on board a working ship, not least because (as is well documented) it often leaves a medium-term legacy of fatigue which can be debilitating in highly physical environments like ships. More than that, the lingering impact of the pandemic on shore leave in some parts of the world remains a problematic reality. Getting out and about, finding relaxation and stimulation in different environments and seeing fresh faces is vital for sustaining strong mental health during long ship-board contracts. Where this is prevented or discouraged – or where seafarers themselves have a self-imposed reluctance – it can have an adverse impact. We at MtS will continue to do all we can to encourage shore leave, both locally and (with colleagues across maritime welfare) internationally. Things are improving but, in some places, not always as quickly as we would wish.
Before I went on holiday, there was much to encourage. My visits included time in Scotland where I wanted to be present at the MtS Scotland Annual Meeting. This was particularly important as it marked the end of the Chairmanship of David Graham-Service. He has been a remarkably successful and hands-on Chair. He has been highly active, alongside excellent Chaplain The Revd Tim Tunley, in leading what must be a record number of Sea Sunday services across Scotland, in dramatically improving fundraising and – most importantly – in ensuring first class support for seafarers, most recently through the part MtS has played in the development of a new Centre. As was apparent once again at the meeting, Scotland also remains a place where excellent partnerships with our ecumenical colleagues are on show, particularly with Stella Maris. Thanks David (and Tim) for all you have done. As so often, a fantastic modelling of volunteering. En route it was also great to meet once again the equally vibrant staff and volunteers of our historic South Shields Centre.
On the theme of ecumenical partnerships, I travelled to Antwerp in September, this time for the Annual General Meeting of the International Christian Maritime Organisation. As ever, ICMA remains a great vehicle for partnership. And Antwerp again is a port where such partnership is marvellously demonstrated. A huge port where so many maritime welfare missions are active, they meet, plan, and pray together very regularly – and take agreed organisational responsibility for different parts of the port. They support and cover for each other in a wonderful way. It is always an inspiration to see such mutuality in work.
On my way to Scotland, I passed through the beautiful town of Hexham, with its marvellous and ancient abbey. Close to Hexham is a famous and beautiful Sycamore Tree. Famously, it stands in rugged country in a gap between two hills. It is a thing of wonder, very much visited and photographed, but also a place of shelter, both from sun and rain. A few days after my visit, the tree was cut down in an act of pure criminal vandalism. An absolute tragedy. For now, nothing stands in that gap. I am reminded of a verse in Ezekiel, chapter 22 verse 30 where God castigates his people for not having stood in the “gap”. In that case, it is an image of a city wall, broken in battle, needing someone to stand and protect the city. But perhaps too it is an image of what we try to do: to “stand in the gap”, providing protection, a place of refreshment and nurture, even a place of beauty where seafarers can find shelter. Those I saw in Scotland, South Shields and Antwerp are standing in that gap, along with so many others. We must remain in those gaps for seafarers and their families. A thought to take away perhaps.