Seafarer centres’ evolution to fit changing crew needs

Supporting the hidden army

Sailor Society. Credit Catherine Austin

The colossal movement of commodities and goods to satisfy the needs of a growing human population is supported by a hidden army of over 1.6 million seafarers. Without their hard work day in day out to keep the global economy afloat the fleet of steel cargo-carrying giants would lay idle and world trade would grind to halt.

However, men and women at sea face a very different working week than most to keep more than 90% of the world’s trade flowing. Working onboard a ship can be a lonely existence with several weeks spent sailing with very little or no communication with home, away from civilisation and creature comforts.

Alike other industries, advances in technology and processes is changing the life of the seafarer, how they work at sea and the support they require from their employer and that offered by the industry’s vital network of seafarer charities, organisations and associations.

Support services are delivered in many forms and seek to offer help for those that need it, particularly in the key areas of communication, transport and mental health support. The Mission for Seafarers, Sailors Society and Stella Maris (formerly known as Apostleship of the Sea) are three seafarer support charities that work alongside each other, united by a common goal to provide care, comfort and vital amenities to ship crew. These charities are also united in their belief in the way that their services are delivered are changing to ensure that the strains of the modern seafarer are supported.

When you think of seafarer charities, a seafarer centre or a friendly chaplain may spring to mind. Traditionally seafarer centres have always played a key role in providing a home from home for seafarers when in port, alongside chaplains and welfare volunteers climbing onboard ships to offer a kind ear and advice, or crisis intervention if required. Today, multiple factors influence how modern seafarers interact with support services provided by seafarer charities. A dominant factor highlighted by all three aforementioned seafarer support charities being decreasing turnaround times in port.

Increasing digitalisation and advances in technology have allowed ports to become more efficient at discharging and loading cargo. Though commercially beneficial for the port terminals and the ship owner by increasing a ship’s up time, for the crew onboard it means a restriction on time available to go ashore, seek Wi-Fi to communicate with loved ones, make use of available centre facilities, or venture into the local town.

Previously a three to five day stay in port, or longer, was the norm and seafarer centres needed to cater for crew visiting for those periods. Martin Foley, national director of Stella Maris,  told Safety at Sea that in the past the charity’s centres had bars, accommodation and even dance floors, where romance bloomed with many sailors meeting their spouses.

The fact is that in today’s industry the traditional, larger seafarer centres would struggle to survive as crew don’t have the same lengths of stay in port and therefore some of the once commonplace facilities are not required. These days seafarers are lucky if they are in port for more than one to two days and a 24-hour turnaround time is becoming more normal.

Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones, Port Chaplain Wales for The Mission to Seafarers told Safety at Sea, “In my two years working as a port chaplain at The Mission for Seafarers I have started to witness one tide turnarounds, not only on occasion but on a regular basis. A ship comes in to port and after 24 hours they are heading back out again.”

Stella Maris’ Martin Foley explained that it is for this reason that the main focus of the charity is ship visiting in recognition of the fact that the majority of seafarers don’t have time to come ashore. “We don’t wait for them to come to us,” he said.

During ship visits, Stella Maris chaplains and volunteers not only offer a listening ear and an arm around the shoulder, but also on board internet access. Foley said that connectivity demands are met by chaplains and welfare volunteers taking mobile Wi-Fi units onboard and leaving them there for a couple of hours.

Rev Lawson-Jones echoed the sentiments of his fellow charity colleague, saying that getting the right balance of service provision to seafarers is essential in the modern industry. “The speed of turnaround means that we need to get it right otherwise seafarers will have no interaction with someone who is concerned with their welfare. Therefore, for us, it isn’t just about the centres it’s about the boots on the ships. In our area, chaplains and ship welfare visitors ensure that we visit all of the ships that come into Wales, even if it’s for five minutes or five hours,” he said.

Support centre evolution

Even though support services are shifting towards being more mobilised, it doesn’t mean that seafarer centres will become obsolete any time soon. Instead, seafarer centres are evolving in their size, style and facilities. There is a move away from centres with large surface areas to ones that have smaller footprints.

Sailors’ Society- Opening launch of Seafarer’s Centre. Credit Catherine Austin

Furthermore, unmanned, 24/7 drop in centres that can be accessed using a code provided to crew as they approach the port are becoming a more viable option, that is more in line with the lives of modern seafarers. This drop-in centre could be a sectioned off area of the wider seafarer centre facilities, or it could be standalone in the port.

Either way, the establishment of this type of evolved hub sits at the top of the agenda for the seafarer support charities to cater for those seafarers with limited time in port who desperately want to connect with loved ones after weeks spent at sea.

Foley of Stella Maris stressed, however, that this evolution does not mean seafarer centres are obsolete, simply changing their model, and stressed it is essential they are kept open. “The days of a large seafarer centre proving a whole host of facilities, accommodation, bars with alcohol, are numbered. As that model is not sustainable,” he asserted.

Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones’ of the Mission to Seafarers believes that seafarer centres will provide greater benefit if they are smaller and more portable. He recently welcomed the opening of a brand-new Mission to Seafarers seafarer centre in the Port of Port Talbot in South Wales, UK, which comes under the jurisdiction of his chaplaincy duties. It is also a port located in the boundaries of a steelworks, away from the local town.

The new seafarer centre has a small footprint, is portable and contains all of the amenities you would expect to make a home from home for the seafarers but also offers 24-hour access iPads and Wi-Fi in close proximity to the port’s berths.

When it comes to the style and set up of seafarer centres, a message that came through loud and clear from the seafarer support charities was that centres are modernising. The deputy CEO of Sailors’ Society, Sandra Welch, told Safety at Sea that the charity has moved away from centres decorated with shipping paraphernalia and pictures. “What struck me after visiting many seafarer centres around the world was I thought if I was on a ship for 6 weeks at a time the last thing I would want to do is to go into a centre that looks like a ship,” she says.

Sailors Society has, like other charities, moved away from having a lot of centres and today most of their work is port-based with chaplains getting onboard shops due to the quick turnaround times.

Welch said there has been a shift away from “elaborate” centres to focus on exactly what the seafarers need. She described how the setup of the charity’s seafarer centres have changed to having a more zonal structure with large, light filled rooms, quiet space, cooking areas, equipment for physical wellness and areas for relaxation.

The Mission for Seafarers’ director of development Jan Webber also backed a shift to seafarers’ centres designed to have different, functional zones, adding, “think of a business class/frequent flyer lounge in an airport.”

“At the moment, the majority of centres are large spaces to encourage social interaction, with only the chapel being sectioned off. In the future I think there will be clear zones depicting: Connect, Play, Rest and Wellness,” Webber added.

The three charities that sit at the coal face of seafarer support all agree that the role of the seafarer centre will remain vital, albeit the size, style and contents of the centres are being adapted to cater for changing seafarer needs.

Connectivity will continue to be the number one demand alongside transportation services and getting boots on ships will become increasingly important to reach those seafarers that have limited time to come ashore.

Connectivity is also changing the way crew are seeking support. “An increasing number of seafarers use WhatsApp to contact me from all over the world”, said Rev Lawson-Jones. However, when asked if face-to-face interaction could ever be replaced by communications with seafarers via apps like WhatsApp or Skype, Rev Lawson-Jones was adamant that the imperative role of face-to-face communications is here to stay, explaining that “visiting seafarers with genuine care for how they are can never be replaced by virtual communication”.