Seafaring remains one of the most dangerous occupations but beyond the very worst that mother nature can do, being at sea for months on end can take a different kind of toll on the men and women who work the world’s ships.
“Seafarers are lonely, they feel isolated,” says the Rev. Howard Drysdale, who works as a port chaplain in Scotland’s busiest port, Aberdeen, with the interdenominational ministry Sailors’ Society.
Around 90 percent of the goods imported into the United Kingdom each year arrive by ship, but with modern ports being far more removed from towns and cities, the hard reality of a life spent at can be easily missed.
The average seafarer spends six to nine months, sometimes even a year at sea, often with no means to communicate with their families.
Their needs when they arrive in port can be as varied as the weather out at sea, meaning that the port chaplains have to be ready for anything.
“A typical day? I’m not sure we have such a thing as a typical day!” says the Rev. Andrew Huckett, a port chaplain in Southampton with the Anglican seafaring ministry, Mission to Seafarers. “Seafarers have many different problems. They have no social security, they don’t have free healthcare. It can be anything.”
At the port chaplain’s center, seafarers will find free access to the Internet, phone cards, DVDs, a fresh stock of reading material and that all important sympathetic ear from the port chaplains.
In times of greater need, port chaplains may be called upon to help seafarers who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, in hospital, or in jail. Very often, it is the port chaplain who will visit them until they are out again. And when seafarers die unexpectedly, port chaplains are there to break the news to family members.
Whatever the need, port chaplains are used to being called upon at times of crisis.
“You have to be very flexible because no two days are the same. No two gangways are ever the same. You never know what you will meet at the other end of the gangway,” says Drysdale.
With ships sometimes docked for only a few hours, it is vital that the port chaplains gain the trust of the seafarers in a very short space of time.
“The seafarer doesn’t have lot of time when in port and he has to know who to trust,” says the Rev. David Potterton, Principle Chaplain with Sailors’ Society. “One of the things that the chaplains enjoy is a trusted status because we are seen to be men and women of faith. Even for the Muslim, that has real currency with them and they respect that.”
That trust has been built up over many years of Christ-like service to seafarers of all faiths in ports across the world. Some locals see the docked ships as an opportunity to make some money by going onboard to sell their goods and wares, but chaplains are different. Their primary concern is the spiritual and physical well-being of the seafarers.
“Everyone’s trying to get something from the seafarers. But we are trying to give something to them,” says Drysdale.
Potterton adds: “Most go onto ships selling things but we go onto the ships and we don’t sell anything and that just opens up so many opportunities. It is a genuine expression that we are there for the seafarers.”
Sometimes the challenges seafarers face are related to the ship itself. While most of the 40,000 vessels sailing the world’s seas today are operated by reputable companies to high standards, there are still some ships sailing that are not seaworthy.
“Sadly ships do sink, and lives are lost, but seafarers are willing to take the risk because they need the money,” says Potterton.
Occasionally, ships can be held up or arrested over shoddy paperwork or substandard conditions and at such times, it is not uncommon for crews to find themselves having to fight for their wages. The port chaplains are often called upon to negotiate with port authorities and trade unions to ensure the welfare of the seafarers takes first, not second, place.
In reality, most seafarers are supporting not only their own family, but also their extended family, including the families of their brothers and sisters, and their aging parents.
“The seafarers often feel they’ve got to go back to sea, because they have to pay for their children’s education and they want best for their children. Going to sea is seen as a way of delivering the best but the reality is that the seafarer often doesn’t get the best deal out of it,” says Potterton.
The greatest need of the seafarers, however, is spiritual. Long periods away from home mean that family breakdown is common, and while alcohol abuse may be a caricature, Potterton says it is still an issue.
“They may be men and they may appear to be very hard men but they have hearts too,” he says.
On a religious level, a Christian seafarer can find life at sea challenging if they are the only believer onboard, but the greatest difficulty lies in not being able to go to church for months at a time.
The chaplains are on hand to pray with seafarers, both onboard and in their well-equipped seafaring centers. They also run worship services and provide New Testaments (because they are lighter than a complete Bible) as well as daily Bible reading notes to help tide the seafarers over during the next few months at sea.
“It’s a challenge to live out your faith at the best of times but working in the international, multi-faith shipping industry can make it even harder,” says Huckett.
“You have to put your heart into it. You have to see them as your parishioners.”
Drysdale echoes his sentiments: “My church is the seafarers.”
Neither are seafarers under any illusions about their fragility when up against the power of nature’s raw elements.
“Seafarers are more religiously aware than the people working shore-side,” says Huckett. “Being out at sea most of the time, they have a different perspective and time to think things over.”
It is not unusual, therefore, for seafarers to ask chaplains to pray with or for them or to simply ask questions about their faith.
“We actually want to create a hunger for Christ and in meeting with us and receiving the care that we give creates a hunger,” says Potterton. “They may not eat a full meal the first time but in time…”
The key is to be sensitive, says Huckett.
“If they ask questions about my faith I tell them, but we are careful not to thrust it down anybody’s throats. It’s the quickest way to lose a person – if they think you’ve got an agenda.”
Instead, it is about allowing the seafarers to meet Jesus through first serving.
“There is a caricature about what a Christian is and what we believe, that we are just judgmental, bigoted. But we have no agenda and I think they appreciate that,” he said. “The joy for us is that we can show a side of Christ that people don’t really see.”
Referring to the scene in the Bible in which Jesus asks the blind Nicodemus what he would like the Lord to do for him, he adds, “It’s a Nicodemus moment. I would like you to tell me what I can do for you. That’s not the view of the church that most people have.”