Going to sea has often been portrayed in books and films as a romantic and adventurous life. The reality is very different. And one of the hardest things for a modern seafarer is coping with the isolation and loneliness on board.
9 July is Sea Sunday, when the Church asks us to pray for seafarers and support the work of Apostleship of the Sea, whose chaplains and ship visitors provide practical and pastoral help in ports around the coast of Britain. Apostleship of the Sea is unique in being the only Catholic agency serving the maritime industry.
We might never think about seafarers, but they play a crucial role in all our lives. For around 90% of goods imported into the UK arrive by sea. That’s everything from cars and coffee to bananas and fridges. If the world’s 1.5 million seafarers went on strike, then many of our shops would soon be empty.
Nowadays ships have very small crews. For example, the largest British-registered ship, the CMA GCM Kerguelen, which can carry 17,000 containers and is the length of four football pitches, only has 26 crew members.
Rev Roger Stone, Apostleship of the Sea port chaplain in Southampton, said many seafarers talk to him about feeling lonely on long voyages. “Seafarers work closely with the same people for a long time, eat in the same place, sit opposite the same person every meal time.”
A small crew has serious implications for seafarers, he explained. “The smaller the crew, the less variety seafarers have in their workplace. All it takes is for one awkward or difficult character and the atmosphere changes for the worse.”
And the fact that a crew is usually made up of seafarers from different countries can also affect conditions on board, he added. “Sometimes there are culture clashes which can lead to isolation for seafarers. This applies as much to senior officers as it does to junior. Smaller crews mean it’s even more difficult to go ashore and ‘be normal’ if only for an hour or two.”
Most of us get to see our family and close friends regularly. But for seafarers, with nine-month contracts common on many ships, this isn’t the case.
They accept this sacrifice stoically, as going to sea is often the only way to earn enough money to support their families, who are often in poorer parts of the world, such as the Philippines, India, or Ukraine.
Few ships have internet access and using a satellite phone is very expensive. That’s why when Apostleship of the Sea port chaplains go on board a ship they always carry a supply of mobile phone top-up and SIM cards.
Wojchiec Holub, Apostleship of the Sea port chaplain to Tilbury and the Thames, recounted a conversation recently with a captain, “I asked him, when do you sleep?” “He smiled and said he slept when he could”. “But how you can you sleep with all the noise from containers and cranes?” I said. He replied, “You get used to it. I know seafarers who cannot sleep without noise, so when they go home, they sleep close to fridge.”
For more information about Apostleship of the Sea visit: www.apostleshipofthesea.org.uk.
Greg Watts, Apostleship of the Sea