‘The situation seafarers are facing is inhumane’

Following the effects of the coronavirus crisis, Rev Dennis Woodward estimates that 300,000 sailors are stuck onboard their ships. As the only chaplain left at Europe’s largest port, he’s one of their most important advocates

Words: Claire Musters (@CMusters )

More than 90 per cent of all the world’s traded goods get transported by ship, with 1.5 million seafarers working on-board thousands of vessels. But since Covid-19 gripped the world, thousands have been stuck on their ships for months past the end of their contracts.

Even before the pandemic struck, seafaring was considered one of the toughest and most dangerous occupations in the world, due to the long hours and the threats of piracy, shipwreck and abandonment by unscrupulous ship owners. As they are often away from home for nine months at a time, and internet access can be limited (or non-existent), many seafarers also suffer from poor mental health.

 

Founded in 1856, The Mission to Seafarers (missiontoseafarers.org) provides much needed emotional and spiritual support through their global network of volunteers and chaplains. British-Dutch national Rev Dennis Woodward is based in Europe’s busiest port in Rotterdam, which sees 500,000 seafarers passing through each year. Before coronavirus struck, there were 20 volunteers and chaplains based there. Today, only Woodward is left.

 

Coronavirus has meant many of the usual crew changeovers have been cancelled. This is due to government restrictions on travel, new quarantine measures, an overall reduction in flights and a reluctance to label seafarers as key workers. The Mission to Seafarers estimate as many as 300,000 people are effectively prisoners onboard their own ships. It’s a humanitarian crisis at sea, and Woodward describes the situation as “inhumane”.

 

Woodward tells me about one Filipino seafarer he has been able to help, named Daniel. The pair met in July 2019 when Daniel was working onboard a crude oil tanker as a second officer, doing very long shifts. “I was already concerned that, only one and a half months into his contract, he was so tired,” says Woodward.

 

Daniel’s contract was due to end in December 2019, but he contacted Woodward via WhatsApp in mid- March 2020 to say: “I’m ten months stuck onboard. There’s no reliever. Can you please help me?” Alongside the International Transport Workers’ Federation, Woodward contacted the unions in each of the countries around the Mediterranean, where the ship was anchored, but kept getting the same response: “No crew changes here; they’re not allowed due to coronavirus.”

 

“In the months that followed, I tried to support him via WhatsApp; tried multiple times to get him off the ship, unsuccessfully. At one point I was seriously worried for his mental health and frustrated that we were at such a distance. In our conversations his mood was sinking lower; I was concerned he was going to hurt himself. Then, suddenly, in July, there was good news. They were in the south of Greece. Within a couple of hours’ notice it was possible for him to go on a charter to land, spend a couple of days in a hotel, travel to Athens and then, via four different planes, make it to Manila. He spent another four days in quarantine there then flew on to his province for another two-week quarantine. At the end of July, he was finally reunited with his wife and his daughter. His initial contract had been seven months; he had spent more than 13 months onboard.”

Seafarers are glad to receive Bibles and other resources from Woodward

Rev Dennis Woodward is passionate about engaging with seafarers, calling them his "transient congregation"

THE LAST CHAPLAIN LEFT

In recent months, Woodward has had to rethink how he connects with ship crews. He now has to wear protective gear and stay a safe distance away on the gangway, rather than fully boarding a ship. The in-depth, more personal and private conversations he used to have with individuals can no longer take place.

 

While frustrating, Woodward is glad he can still hand out care packages, Bibles and pray for people. He has also had some more unusual requests from crew members: “There was a ship that had run out of drinking water. I went to my local Lidl
and asked the manager how much bottled water I could take – it ticked them over for the next two days.”

 

I ask why he continues with the in-person parts of his job, inspite of the risks. He replies that he “really struggled” with the idea of abandoning the seafarers when “they need us most”.

UNDERVALUED AND FORGOTTEN

National coronavirus policies are putting the lives of onboard seafarers at risk. Woodward explains: “Many countries are still not recognising that seafarers are key workers, which means that travel and crew changes become very hard.” This also means that another 300,000 seafarers are stuck in their home countries, although they are keen to work (most only earn when onboard). While the UK has led the way, and the Netherlands also recognise them as key workers, many countries still do not.

 

There is also an issue with visas – when seafarers disembark they get an exit visa, which stipulates the time they are allowed to be in the country before catching a flight. Often that is 72 hours, but as flights have been cut, seafarers often miss the only day a plane is flying to their home country. In Rotterdam, visa times have been extended, but bureaucracy is holding this up elsewhere.

SHOWING CREW THEY MATTER

Legally, the maximum time crew is allowed onboard is eleven months, but there are plenty, who, like Daniel, are still stuck onboard long after their contracts have ended. With no end to the pandemic in sight, those who work with seafarers like Daniel are advocating hard for them.

The Mission to Seafarers is also reaching seafarers digitally, through ‘Chat to a Chaplain’: “They log into the website and there’ll be a chaplain at the other end they can say whatever they want to, such as: ‘I really miss my family’ or ‘I’ve lost a loved one’. It won’t instantly change their circumstances, but hopefully it will help them to offload.”

Woodward believes that digital chaplaincy can have real and profound effects. But he also still firmly believes a human presence is vital – particularly in ports like Rotterdam, which are being worked 24/7 but often by driverless vehicles. In an environment already devoid of human contact, Woodward believes the message seafarers need to hear is that “they are loved and what they do matters”.

“Sometimes I get to portray the love of Jesus in very practical ways, through supplying SIM cards, toiletries, medication, but also in a conversation that simply starts with: ‘How are you? I am interested to know more about you.’”

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