Monday, 10 June 2013

Mission to Seafarers, Felixstowe

I first heard about the Mission to Seafarers from a friend in college, which led me to work for them as a Chaplain's Assistant in Auckland, New Zealand from 1998 to 1999. I loved my time with the Mission, and in more recent years have kept up my links with them, as an honorary preacher in the Diocese of Lichfield.

As part of my sabbatical, it was always my wish to spend sometime with a Mission to Seafarers Chaplain, to see how the work has changed over the last 14 years, and to consider whether this might be something I'd consider going back to in the future.  So I am spending a week shadowing the Felixstowe Mission to Seafarers Chaplain, the Revd Simon Davies, who has been in this current post for 18 months.  

It has been really great to be back on a port, and the opportunity to visit ships, something I've really missed over the years.

The port of Felixstowe is the largest container port in the UK, handling 40% of the containers that come into Britain.  It can accommodate the largest container ships currently in use (up to 150,000 tonnes).  Although Felixstowe is facing a challenge from the new Thames port, which seeks to take some of this trade away from this Suffolk port. 

In Felixstowe there is a very attractive, modern Seafarers centre on the port.  In this centre there is a chapel, shop, bar and area to relax in.  This centre is run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers.  

The bar and shop of the Felixstowe Seafarers Centre

Games tables and computer desks in the centre

The very attractive garden behind the seafarers centre in Felixstowe

There are two chaplains working in the port of Felixstowe, Simon Davies, the Mission to Seafarers Chaplain, and a Apostleship of the Seas Chaplain.  There used to also be a Sailors Society Chaplain, but the Sailors Society has recently withdrawn its funding for its chaplains in Britain.  The two chaplains cover the Port of Felixstowe, Harwich and Ipswich.   

Today we visited three ships, the Cornelia Maersk (91921 tonnes), 

the Opdr Cadiz (7360 tonnes) 

and the Pucon (73,934 tonnes).  There were two things that really struck me about today's visit, compared to my experiences in New Zealand.


The first big difference is security on board ships is much tighter.  When I worked for the Mission to Seafarers (before 9/11), we would just wonder on board the ship as we wished.  Now however security is much tighter.  This is due to the International Ship and Port Security Code or ISPS, which was introduced in the wake of 9/11, over fears about terrorism.  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 people 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.  This means that the banks of telephones in the Seafarers Centre which were in so much use, now are not required in the same way.  Simon also carries with him a laptop and free WIFI, again so seafarers can contact their families via Facebook or Skype.  

A lot of my time when I was a Chaplain's Assistant, when not ship visiting, was spent making calls on behalf of seafarers, it is interesting to see how modern technology has changed this aspect of the Mission to Seafarers work.  

On board the Cornelia Maersk, we had our best conversation of the day, talking to a veteran seafarer from the Philippines, aged 61.  He talked about some of the challenges he has faced being at sea much of his life.  One of the biggest challenges is how being away from his wife and family, has made it difficult to discipline his children, and that he has missed much of their growing up.  

His wife and children have been so used to not having him around, there is always a challenge when he does return home about re-establishing relationships within the family.

The ship he is on travels between Europe and Asia, and regularly travels via the Suez Canal, and the pirate invested waters off Somalia.  He told me that he had been lucky, and he had never been threatened by pirates, but he said he always prayed for bad weather when they travelled past the Somali coast, because the pirates can't operate in rough seas.  Although he's on a large ship, it brought home to me the dangers seafarers face from piracy, and how vulnerable they are from attack.  To come under attack from pirates must be a truly terrifying experience.  

I was also reminded to, from our ship visits, that although ships are busy places, they are also the home for seafarers, and so when boarding a ship, you are not just boarding someone's place of work, but also their home, and respecting this is extremely important.

It has been a fascinating day, and it has been interesting to see how the work of the Mission to Seafarers has changed during the last decade or so, but also how the ship visiting remains at the heart of what this job is all about.  

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