Dennis Woodward has been a Port Chaplain in Rotterdam since the autumn of 2017. He shares the changes and challenges he’s witnessed, and why there’s no other job like this one.
I’ve come to love and really appreciate the 1.9 million men and women who do this. I’m very aware my life would look radically different without shipping. The life we’ve become accustomed to in the West – they make it happen. A part of me feels indebted to them. The least I can do is be a listening ear and a source of encouragement.
Providing a Listening Ear
There are a lot of practical things we do for seafarers, like providing sim cards, chocolate or hygiene products, but most of all seafarers ask for a listening ear. They want the opportunity to be heard, be prayed for, and maybe receive a Bible. Really, they want an opportunity to share their struggles and challenges and have someone to listen to them. The things that pop to mind are the times I’ve been onboard, and a seafarer has shared something that is intensely sad. I’ve been on the receiving end of seafarers sharing the loss of a child, sharing about being present at the birth of a child and the next day the child died. That’s the rawness of life. It’s an incredible privilege to have people share that with you.
Personal, Practical Support
Beyond listening and praying with seafarers, we also provide really practical help. At one time there was an Indian seafarer who had severe burns from steam in the engine room. Because he was in the Netherlands, he was immediately put on a diet of potatoes and meat, which was not what he was used to! So, I managed to arrange for him, twice a day, to get a local Indian takeaway for 10 days. He was so grateful. Now when I visit Filipino seafarers in the hospital, one of my first questions is ‘What’s the food like?’. So many just want a taste of what they’re used to. It really helps their recovery if they get rice! It just boosts their morale.
Adapting to Changing Challenges
One of the biggest challenges we face in the Port of Rotterdam is shore leave. The port of Rotterdam never had any restrictions on shore leave, even in the pandemic. And while the Maritime Labour Convention is very clear that shore leave can’t be restricted, in such an extensive port it’s difficult for seafarers to leave their ships. The Port of Rotterdam is 43km long and it’s hard to cover that entire land mass. For many seafarers, it’s a challenge of time. Even with two port centres, many just don’t have enough time to get there. So, we are making it as easy as possible to offer transport at times when they need it but it’s something I’d love to see developed.
Going Above and Beyond
One of my fondest memories is from June 2020, when the oil crisis was happening, and the price of crude oil went negative. It was the height of the pandemic, and we were consuming so much less. What this meant was that 130 to 150 tankers were at anchorage in front of the Belgium/Dutch coast. Some ships had been there a couple of months. I managed to get a charter ship to take me, free of charge, to some of these ships and bring presents on board. Beyond providing gifts and a listening ear, I took drinking water on board. I even got medication for a seafarer living with HIV who was down to his last few strips. It was a lot of admin and money, but worth it. It really did feel like we were bringing hope, joy and a sense of acceptance to people who felt that a lot of the world had forgotten about them.