This is an article for St Martin's Church Newsletter (16th June 2013), about my time with the Mission to Seafarers in Felixstowe. It is largely based on my two earlier blog posts.
As part of my sabbatical I am spending a week shadowing the the Revd Simon Davies, the Mission to Seafarers Chaplain to the Ports of Felixstowe, Ipswich and Harwich. The Port of Felixstowe is one of the UK's busiest ports, handling approximately 40% of the UK's container trade, and can accommodate some of the largest container ships in the world (up to 150,000 tonnes).
Rev Simon Davies, leaving the 143,000 tonne MSC Trieste
Over 90% of the UK's imports come via the sea. The port of Felixstowe deals with 40% of all UK container trader.
The Port of Ipswich in contrast handles smaller bulk carrying ships up to 10,000 tonnes, transporting goods such as cement, wheat, fertilizer, timber and other commodities.
In Felixstowe there is a very modern attractive Seafarers Centre, run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers, but with a quick turn around of ships, it is not always possible for the seafarers to visit this centre, so the majority of Simon's time is spent visiting the seafarers on board the ships in port.
It is 14 years since I last worked for the Mission to Seafarers in New Zealand, and I have noticed a number of significant changes. The first big difference is security on board ships is much tighter. When I worked for the Mission to Seafarers, we would wonder on board the ship as we wished. Now however security is much stricter, due to the International Ship and Port Security Code or ISPS, which was introduced in the wake of 9/11. Now you are no longer able to just wonder on board a ship, but must get permission to board, and to sign for a visitors pass.
The other big difference is the advances in technology. One of the main priorities of seafarers is to keep in touch with their families, who they are away from for months on end. In the past they would visit Seafarers centres, to make cheap calls on the banks of telephones. Now they use use mobile phones and the internet to stay in touch with relatives. So when Simon visits ships he takes on board a selection of SIM cards, and internet cards, which the seafarers can use in their own phones to contact their relatives at home. Simon also carries with him a laptop and free WIFI, again so seafarers can contact their families via Facebook or Skype. It is interesting to see what a difference modern technology has made to the lives of seafarers, and the work of the mission.
Some ship visits are very brief and can last a matter of a few minutes, and other visits you can be on the ship for quite a long time. The length of a visit depends on many different factors including how busy the crew are, when the ship is due to depart, and also the type of welcome you receive when you board a ship. Sometimes when visiting a ship we don't get any further than the gangway, and on other ships we are invited into the mess deck, and can be offered food and drink. Often the seafarers talk about the difficulties they face being away from their families for up to 10 months at a time. When the seafarers do return home, there is the challenge of re-establishing relationships within the family. I have also talked to a number of seafarers about the dangers they face from piracy. One seafarer told me that he always prayed for bad weather when they travelled past the Somali coast, because the pirates can't operate in rough seas.
As a nation we are very reliant on all that seafarers do, so please do remember them in your prayers, and the work of chaplain's like Simon, serving seafarers all around the world.