Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Mission to Seafarers

The Mission to Seafarers traces its origins back to the early 19th century, to a young Anglican clergyman called John Ashley.

In 1835 John Ashley was holidaying on the Bristol Channel. Walking along the cliffs one day he noticed a large fleet of sailing ships lying out in the channel waiting for a favourable wind to take them out to sea. He made some enquiries amongst the locals, and was told that no clergyman visited these ships, and so the next day he hired a boat and set sail for the fleet.

Ashley was so moved by the conditions he found the seafarers living in, that he decided to leave parish ministry and devote the rest of his life to serving seafarers.

Over a period of 15 years, John Ahsley visited thousands of ships at sea, taking services, and giving away thousands of Bibles & prayers books to British seamen.

John Ahsley's example inspired other clergy to start similar ministries amongst seafarers in different parts of the country, and in May 1858, The Missions to Seamen, as it was then known, was officially born.

The logo for this newly formed organisation was a Flying Angel. 

The inspiration for this was drawn from Revelation 14:6 "Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people." And it is this verse of Scripture which underpins all that the Mission to Seafarers stands for. The object of the society has always been to care for the spiritual and physical welfare of all seafarers, and to proclaim the eternal Gospel to all people. From this small beginnings in the Bristol Channel, the Mission to Seafarers has grown, and now has full time chaplain's in more than 100 ports around the world, and is represented in some 130 others by honorary chaplains. 

Life of Seafarers

There are approximately 1.2 million merchant seafarers worldwide. 95% of all the goods brought into the UK, come by sea, so seafarers play a vitally important role in all our lives, but despite that the expression 'out of sight, out of mind' could easily be applied to seafarers. 

Thanks to the success of the Fairtrade campaign, we are a lot more aware about where our food comes from, and who produces it. But I suspect that people rarely ever think about the people that bring these goods to this country by sea, and the conditions they have to live and work in.

The life of seafarers is very demanding:

Isolation – the BIGGEST problem, crews away from home for months, sometimes (18 months or more). Little or no contact with families. Miss key events – birthdays, weddings, funerals, religious festivals. Constantly on move from one port to another.

ADDING to problems of isolation are:
  • Small crews – more work
  • Multinational crews – no shared language


Short turn around times in ports – changes in shipping industry mean ships now spending more time at sea. I visited one car carrying which after 2 weeks at sea, spent only 6 hours in port before leaving for its next destination.

Dangerous working conditions – on average 230 ships worldwide are lost every year, this accounts for around 2000 lives. But we rarely hear about this. Imagine the reaction if every single year 37 airliners crashed – you would expect to hear about it. But you don't when it comes to seafarers. 

Flags of convenience – this is the practice of registering a ship in a different state from the ship's owners. For example, the ship might be owned by a Japanese company, but fly the flag of Liberia or Panama. The advantage for the ship owner is that registering a ship under a flag of convenience means cheap registration fees, low or no taxes and freedom to employ cheap labour. But for the seafarers it often means that their basic human rights are not respected or upheld, such as the hours they should work, what conditions on board should be like, how much they get paid and so forth. It is like being able to register a car in Liberia so I can drive it on British roads without having to get the brakes fixed. Some seafarers describe their job is like being 'at prison with a salary'. But the Maritime Charities Funding Commission actually found that the provision of 'leisure, recreation, religious services, and communication facilities is better in UK prisons than on many ships.' 

Piracy – in 2010, 445 incidents of piracy:
53 vessels were hijacked                                 

1181 crew were taken hostage                                

8 crew killed                                     

Somalia accounts for 92% of the 2010 figures                

Economic Downturn – having big impact on shipping industry. Lots of ships being 'laid up' – there is a human cost to this story, skeleton crews left on these ships, with little or no means of escaping.

Ship abandonment –there are currently 112 cargo ships lying abandoned in docks around the world, leaving hundreds of seafarers stranded without pay and with no way to get home. Ships are often abandoned by their owners it they run into financial difficulties, or if ships are detained for breaking safety regulations. It is often cheaper for the owner to abandon the ship than pay for improvements. 

This photo is of the The Most Sky, a Turkish owned ship sailing under the flag of Panama, and lying abandoned in Birkenhead. On board this ship there was a crew of 11 Georgians. The conditions on board were terrible. They had no heating apart from an old kebab grill, the bunks were soaking wet, and the man assigned to catering duties could only cook potatoes. When eventually 8 members of the crew were paid and repatriated, they were arrested in Turkey on false charges.

The role of the Mission to Seafarers

The Mission to Seafarers seeks to care for the spiritual and physical needs of seafarers of all races and creeds. But the heart of this ministry is a desire to share with these seafarers the love of God. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus commended those who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, looked after the sick, and visited the prisoner. He said "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40). This parable really embodies what the Mission to Seafarers strives to do. 

Mission to Seafarers in 2010 chaplains & volunteers 

Visited more than 76,000 ships 
Dealt with over 400 justice and welfare cases involving 800 seafarers

Welcomed more than 640,000 seafarers to their centres

Provided transport for 680,000 seafarers

Visited nearly 600 seafarers in hospital

Distributed 175,000 Bibles and other items of Christian literature

Helped send 622,000 telephone & email calls on behalf of seafarers

Auckland Mission:

My jobs included:

Ship visiting – friendly face, not demanding anything from seafarers, there only to help & support. The captain of one ship wrote to the chaplain in Mombassa, We cannot say enough how grateful we are for the overflowing warmth and hospitality that was given to us.
Welfare cases – Chaplains are often the first people the crew turn to
- ship came into Auckland with no fresh food or water, we ensured crew had enough food to get to next port & reported ship to International Maritime Authority.
Filipino sailor Lito, came to help, after not be paid. Are intervention helped secure the $2000 he was owed.
Japanese sailor – injured in accident on ship, fearful of leaving ship & loosing job, we were able to contact Chaplain in Fiji – the ships next port of call, to ask them to check on this man.
A seafarer wrote. Recently I was assisted by your chaplain in Thailand who went out of his way to assist me. It makes me feel that if ever there was a problem and I need to discuss something, then your society can be relied upon.
Help in times of personal crisis – floods in Philippines
SHIP ABANDONMENT – providing food & clothes, helping then stay in touch with their families, campaigning on behalf of seafarers to secure their pay and get their repatriated to their families.
- known as 'Flying Angel Clubs' by Seafarers because of the logo. They are a place for seafarers to come & relax, watch TV, or play snooker, or pool. Small shop selling food, cheap clothes, and souvenirs, & book and video library, which the seafarers could take with them to sea. Chapel at heart of centre – a place for seafarers to come &; pray. Cheap phone calls & internet so people can stay in touch with families. The year I was in Auckland we made over 15,000 international phone calls, to over 112 different countries. An average of 40 international calls a day! And we welcomed 22,000 visitors from 95 different countries to our centre.

The Mission to Seafarers Today

As the Shipping Industry changes, so the Mission to Seafarers is also changing in order to continue to meet the needs of seafarers. For example in 2007 Prince Charles launched the MV Flying Angel in Dubai, so they can reach the 100 -150 ships that are moored off the coast of Dubai every day. One Russian Captain said this "There are very few places we can step down from our ship. On the route we are on from Saudi to East Asia. This is the first time I have stepped down from the ship in 6 months."

Increasingly, as ships spend less time in port, chaplains are increasingly taking on board ships mobile phones & laptops so seafarers can contact their families. 

2008 Strategic review - new Centres being developed around the world. For example, the Mission is expanding its work in the port of Belem, which is on the banks of the Amazon estuary in Brazil. And in 2008 two new seafarer's centres were opened in Mangalore & Tuvalu

How you can help

So how can we support seafarers, and the work of the Mission to Seafarers?


In 1 Thessalonians we are encouraged to pray continually. We need to remember the seafarers, and for the hardships they experience for our sake. To pray for them as they spend many months sometimes years away from their families. We should pray for their safety at sea. For those seafarers who are inadequately fed and clothed. Our prayers are important to the seafarers. This is what the crew of the Black Bart, stranded in NZ for three months wrote to the chaplain. We thank you for your prayers that keep us strong to stand in time of our needs. We can't repay for what you've done to us which we can't forget in a lifetime.

Focus on work of Mission to Seafarers on Sea Sunday – every July

Financial Support

The Mission to Seafarers relies upon the financial support that it receives from churches and individuals to enable its work to continue. The money raised helps support mission centres across the world.

The work of the Mission to Seafarers continues day by day, throughout the world, and truly makes a difference to the lives of countless thousands of men and women who work at sea. It is Christian love in action. We depend upon seafarers all year round, it is important that we remember them in our prayers and remember the Church's ministry to them. Master Mariner John Clark said this about the work of the Mission to Seafarers. It is my firm belief that seafarers need the ministry of the Mission to Seafarers more than ever. There are so many abuses perpetrated on seafarers today which the Mission has to deal with and seeks to address. There are also many thousands of Christian men and women at sea who are away from their families and home churches for many months, who rely on the Mission for spiritual support.

Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

To visit the official Mission to Seafarers website please click HERE

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