As we all grapple with the deprivations associated with this present lockdown, we might pause to spare a thought for the plight of seafarers in this time of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
It is estimated that on any given day there are a million seafarers manning the 60,000 cargo ships which make up the international global fleet. And currently one in six of these seafarers is stranded aboard their ship because of the pandemic and the resultant closing of international borders and the impossibility of securing an international flight.
It is worth remembering that these individuals did not opt for a career at sea through some romantic inclination of a life on the ocean wave or by the lure of international travel, these crews are predominantly sourced from extremely impoverished third world situations, so for them the choice is purely one of survival.
The opportunity for conducting crew changes in overseas ports is now virtually impossible. This means that the length of service aboard a particular vessel before becoming eligible for shore leave has now increased from a typical period of 4 to 6 months to 15 months or more, well in excess of the maximum 11 months as agreed by the International Labour Organisation. And even after 15 months there is still no certainty about when the seafarer might be able to look forward to returning home to his see his family again.
And while conditions on board aren’t quite as spartan or austere as those experienced by Horatio Hornblower, neither are they as comfortable or luxurious as a cruise liner. Ships by necessity are workplaces that operate continuously 7 days a week, 24-hours a day. The typical working day is 12 hours long. The work is both physically and mentally demanding. Fatigue is a constant issue and a lapse in concentration may result in serious injury or even death.
And with no idea when you might be able to see home and loved ones again it’s not difficult to imagine that morale and mental wellbeing must be at an all-time low. And then there’s the flip side of the coin, because as impossible as it is for the crews to go home, it is equally difficult for the relief crews to travel out to meet the ships. And for these people, if they’re not working on the ship, they don’t get paid. Meaning they are unable to support their families and the community in which they live.
Lockdown’s aren’t much fun but imagine being confined aboard a ship and stuck with the same bunch of work colleagues with whom you must not only work, but share meals and socialise without a break for 15 months at a time. As Jean Paul Sartre, so wisely observed, “Hell is other people.” Never would that comment have appeared to be so true than in this situation.
We can gauge just how desperate, this could make some crew members by noting that only recently an individual felt compelled to jump from a ship at anchor in Port Phillip Bay and take his chances swimming the few icy miles to the shore. That is the very embodiment of desperation. He was eventually rescued by the water police, exhausted and clinging to a navigation mark.
So, on the International Maritime Organization's Day of the Seafarer on 25 June, when you glimpse a ship out in the bay or docked in the port, spare a thought for the crew. They could do with all the good vibes they can get at the moment.
The welfare organisations
The work of Melbourne’s seafarer welfare organisations, Mission to Seafarers Victoria and Stella Maris Seafarers' Centre, has never been more important than during this period. As always, they offer both practical, social and emotional support to all seafarers in need but they have had to adapt their methods to operate during the pandemic.
While seafarers cannot leave their ships, the organisations communicate with them remotely, offer support, deliver care packages and shop for requested personal needs, all to help improve the wellbeing of everyone on board the ships.
The Mission to Seafarers started its work in Victoria in 1857 while Stella Maris Seafarers' Centre had its beginnings in the St Vincent de Paul Society, which has records of members visiting ships in Melbourne in 1889. Both organisations have worked continuously since those times to help and support seafarers and they have changed their methods to the constantly changing shipping industry. Once again, in the current situation, they have shown how adaptable and determined they are.
Day of the Seafarer
To mark the day VPCM will make a financial donation to each of the welfare organisations to help them in their work.
Artworks and artefacts donated
Recently, Victorian Ports Victoria (VPCM) donated artworks and other interesting artefacts to both organisations. These can be displayed in their centres and will have meaning for seafarers – once they are able to come ashore and visit again.
Rachel Johnson, VPCM CEO, said. “These items link the port of Melbourne with other ports all around the world and many commemorate historical meetings and events.
“They are important and deserve to be displayed where they can be enjoyed. We are very grateful to the Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre and The Mission to Seafarers Victoria for taking these items so they can be cared for and seen.”
Outside the Mission to Seafarers Victoria building with some of the donated artwork and artefacts.
L to R: Sue Dight, CEO, Mission to Seafarers; Jeff Bazelmans, Executive General Manager, VPCM; Neil Edwards, Chairman, Mission to Seafarers; Rachel Johnson, CEO, VPCM
Inside the Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre in Melbourne.
L to R: James McCully, Centre Manager, Stella Maris; Lee-Anne Diano, Member Committee of Management, Stella Maris; Rachel Johnson, CEO, VPCM; Jeff Bazelmans, Executive General Manager, VPCM; Seamus Quinn, President Committee of Management, Stella Maris