I realised today (to my obvious horror) that I have been here almost two weeks and have not done a post about ship visiting. I will remedy that here!
At the port of Tilbury, on the north bank of the Thames estuary in Essex, there is a little hut comprising a suite of two or three large rooms, a bar, a kitchen, a chapel and a few offices, which is the Tilbury Seamen’s Club. Incidentally, this is run by the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) following a recent takeover of the centre from another organisation, Centres for Seafarers (this business is awash with organisations with very similar sounding names and purposes!) The seamen’s club is a place that merchant sailors can come while their ship is in port to relax, have a drink, use the free Wi-Fi and generally be away from the ships, which are claustrophobic even after a brief visit and must feel like floating prisons after several weeks aboard.
A team of four chaplains work out of the Tilbury centre: The Mission to Seafarers (me!), one Apostleship of the Sea (a Polish guy called Wojciech), one Sailors’ Society (a lovely Indonesian named Frans, who has been my mentor here so far) and the staff chaplain of the QVSR, who is (obviously) by standing arrangement provided by the Deutsche Seemansmission, the maritime chaplaincy organisation of the German Protestant State Church (there is currently a vacancy).
Ship visiting is the mainstay of maritime chaplaincy, the original work of the Mission to Seafarers, and the most obvious thing that I will be doing this year. The role is pretty much as simple as it sounds—you visit ships! Ships come into the port every day—massive container ships, oil tankers, grain carriers, cruise liners, small vessels shuttling between the North Sea ports and so on—and they might be in port a few hours or a few days. There is generally a crew of about ten men, including officers, engineers, a cleaner and a cook (the most important man on the ship!) I say men, because so far I haven’t met a seawoman (and neither has Microsoft Word, judging by the squiggly red line under seawoman). They are a broad mix of nationalities, but mostly Filipino, Indonesian, Somalian, West African, Chinese or Eastern European. In other words, they are a long way from home, doing a very testing and sometimes lonely job for months on end in a language they might not speak, generally, the ships function in (broken) English, the international language of the sea. So the role of the chaplains is to go on board the ships and speak to the sailors and try to address a few of their basic needs.
The routine is quite surreal. You drive up to the side of a boat (imagine the whole thing in a very heavy industrial setting), march up the gangway and introduce yourself to the first sailor you meet, asking to be brought to the mess. You sit in the mess (generally a common room/dining room adjoining to the kitchen) and get offered whatever food they have on at that moment. And word will get around the ship that you are there. The sailors all know about the seamen’s missions, and they come to see you…sometimes as many as four or five (the rest are asleep!). Only a few of the newest ships have the internet on board and so the sailors only have the time in port to communicate with their families. The sailors might ask to be taken down to the centre, to the supermarket to do a bit of shopping or they might simply want to chat to someone who they can confide in.
When I first went ship visiting up in Scotland, with the Mission to Seafarers’ Scottish chaplain, a lovely man called the Rev. Tim Tunley, it took me a while to work out what on earth we were doing there—or more to the point, why the church thinks it is a good use of resources to employ a full-time priest to sell phone cards when the Scottish Episcopal Church alone must have dozens of vacancies to fill. And then a young Filipino chap, probably not much older than me, sidled into the mess and greeted Tim with such unconcealed delight, and said “I’ve been all around the North Sea for the last few months and haven’t spoken to someone who wasn’t a member of the crew since the last time I was here and saw you!” And then the whole thing started to fall into place for me.
This stuff is really important, 90% of Britain’s goods are brought in by sea, including the vast majority of our food, clothes and machinery. Fifty years ago the UK was a trading nation and everybody knew that, and the job of the merchant fleet was well publicised and largely respected. But now, shipping has faded from the national consciousness…few people would be able to explain or even picture the process by which the food they eat, the cars they drive and the fuel they use are brought from their places of origin to the British consumer. And shipping, therefore, is a hidden industry, and by definition also a multi-national one, operating in the shadowy globalised and largely under-regulated world beyond national jurisdictions. And so the seafarers themselves get forgotten, even though they are doing us an absolutely vital service.
I’ve only done two days ship visiting down here so far. On Friday Frans and I spoke to a 28-year-old man from Cape Verde called Abraham who was missing his girlfriend and nine-year-old daughter. Most of these seafarers are young men in their twenties and thirties with wives and children and university degrees, and the best job they can get is working on ships bringing in the goods that maintain our lifestyle.
My general first impressions are the strange beauty of the setting—a mixture of the sounds, smells and sights of heavy industry and the very compelling sky and sea—and the friendliness of the sailors I’ve met.
Words by Thomas Ware, if you want to read more of Thomas’s blog click here.