Seafarers are responsible for 95% of all goods and products that come into Australia, yet they are an “invisible workforce”, enduring tough and lonely conditions, writes Darrell Croker in light of the annual Day of the Seafarer (Tuesday 25 June).
We’ve all seen the queue of vessels off the Newcastle coast and their lights at night on the horizon.
But we probably never imagine that all those seafarers are longing to come ashore.
Time is a killer for seafarers. They are on nine or 12-month contracts and many never touch land in that time.
Mental health is a huge issue. The International Transport Federation (IFT) estimates suicide is 20-times more prevalent in the seafaring community than in land-based industries.
The Port of Newcastle is the biggest exporter of coal in the world and 2,500 vessels enter and depart the harbour every year, which amounts to 40,000 seafarers.
It presents a huge opportunity to offer ministry. The Mission to Seafarers centre in harbourside Wickham is ably meeting the challenge with the Apostleship of the Sea, offering care for all nationalities visiting Newcastle port.
“At least half of them coming to Newcastle avail themselves of the opportunity,” Reverend Garry Dodd, Anglican Senior Chaplain at the seafarers’ centre, says.
“But that’s a conservative estimate.”
The Hannell Street centre is an ecumenical service provided through the Anglican Church in concert with Stella Maris, with Port Chaplains offering practical, pastoral and spiritual support to seafarers. The mission also celebrates Mass at the centre every week.
Last year, Mission to Seafarers teams visited 51% of available vessels, “but it’s a false number”, Rev Dodd says.
“How do you measure the value of that? You can go on board one vessel and have a five-hour conversation with the captain and hear his pain, heartache and despair, and offer encouragement… as opposed to going on 10 ships in five hours with a cursory ‘Hi, how are you, here’s a gift’.”
For seafarers permitted to disembark in Newcastle, the mission’s minibus takes them wherever they want to go, and volunteers help them change money or find medical needs. Importantly, they are brought to the centre for meals, and the mission gives away at least 100 a week.
“We provide a quality service to these young seafarers, men and women,” Chaplain Richard Bergholcs says. “But the thing they really like to do is chill out at the centre and be in private contact with their families.”
Often that contact is bittersweet. Nearly every week, there is a seafarer at the centre who has never seen their baby.
“We have really fast, free Wi-Fi,” Rev Dodd says.
“They are able to Skype home and see their babies, and there are tears everywhere. It is digital chaplaincy at its best.”
The volunteers are the key. The people of Newcastle fund the mission (the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese) – there’s no federal or international money.
“The beautiful thing is,” Rev Dodd says, “they are employing a missionary, but instead of going out into the world and sharing God’s love, the world comes to us.”
The mission needs volunteers. Phone 4961 5007 or email [email protected]