Port Visit to Bristol Portbury

13th November 2015

I’m the Mission to Seafarers most recent employee, Patrick Silla. An important part of any new recruit’s induction when they join ‘the Mish’ is to go on a port visit to one of the many ports around the country. So I took a train down to Bristol, where I met one of our ever-enthusiastic volunteer chaplains Jeremy Hellier, who greets me at the station and whittles me down to Royal Portbury Dock.

En route I quiz Jeremy about how he spends his time and how he fell into working for The Mission to Seafarers. He tells me of his past service as an army chaplain, his time at university and how he balances his time between the Mission and teaching philosophy at a school. Our conversation makes me realise that Jeremy has a wealth of experience and a profound enjoyment for helping others. It’s good to know the lifeblood of The Mission is in the hands of people like Jeremy. After all, our local teams are the people coming into contact with the seafarers that we serve every day.

It takes us about half an hour to get down to the dock; upon arrival I can’t believe the sheer enormity of the place. There is a lot of space – and within the space a lot of stock: cars, fuel, machinery etc. yet despite the many commodities within the area it still feels strangely empty. I feel an ant beneath the red gargantuan cranes, which hang over my head like gangly giant vultures. Jeremy tells me that this is one of the smaller ports in the country; I turn to him with a slight look of disbelief.

We arrive at the Dock and have a quick bite to eat, my curiosity about the place begins to swell and I proceed to inundate Jeremy with a barrage of questions. There’s an element of childlike curiosity that I have about the place; how is it so large? How much cargo passes through here every year? How do the ships sail up that narrow lock? Are there often collisions? Jeremy answers my persistent questions with ease and a tinge of bemusement. He’s eager to get me on a ship, and probably even more eager to keep me quiet! So we head back towards The Mission’s van on the hunt for a ship and a crew.

Eventually we meet some seafarers aboard a container ship “aptly” named BBC Scotland, with a mixture of a Russian and Ukrainian seafarers. We approach the ship and ask if we’re allowed to board. I am surprised about that the crew let us straight on and that the crew are not nervous about us being on board.

Jeremy explains that port chaplains have an unofficial “licence to board” and are always treated with a warm welcome. The Mission’s Flying Angel symbol of trust, what it means and how it helps seafarers’ means that the seafarers trust us.

They are happy to pose for a few photos, talk to us and ask for a lift down to the Flying Angel centre. Upon arrival the crew use the facilities available to them to stay in touch with friends and family.

Jeremy explains that the centres are the best opportunity seafarers have to remain in touch with their loved ones. Their journeys span thousands of miles and there is not an awful amount that they get to see. Seafarers sometimes will not return home for years, seeing endless ocean and the odd port and due to the short turnaround times in ports increasingly it’s the case that this is all they see. I understand the necessity of the role but I quietly reflect on whether I could do such a job myself. Amongst seafarers the job is described as prison with a salary. In Rose George’s book she quotes academic Erol Kahvechi “the provision of leisure, recreation, religious service and communication facilities are better in UK prisons than they are on sea.”

At the Flying Angel Centre at Royal Portbury Dock I meet Nicola, who runs the centre. She’s happy to talk to me about the people that have come in over the years and how she has run the centre. In these places seafarers are allowed in to purchase home comforts, snacks and all the essentials that seafarers might need abroad. She tells me some amusing anecdotes of the sailors over the years and some of the troubles she’s encountered too.

Time is running out and it’s time for me to head off, Jeremy takes me down to the train station and drops me off. I thank him for his time and the lift and make my way to train, my head a little clearer about what this complex charity does and having learned an awful lot too.

See updates from Patrick on @MTSPatrickSilla

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