A profound experience of crew loss hammers home the risks and dangers crew face when working at sea
Looking at ships coming into shore, one will likely, at first glance, see a reddish smudge inching along the horizon. When pressed, the average person could probably identify a ship as a workplace, they might even be able to tell you about the kind of cargo it is carrying (cars, wood chips, and containers). They are probably far less likely, however, to be able to tell you about the people on board.
I recently got an inside look at the community and personalities of some of the seafarers on board one of the ships that comes to Tilbury and it brought me a little bit closer to understanding why we do what we do as port chaplains.
The Tilbury Police alerted us to the fact that a seafarer was missing before the ship came into port. They came to talk to the port chaplains because they know that we work hard to build relationships with each vessel that travels to Tilbury on a regular basis; they wanted to know what information we had about the company, captain, and crew.
The situation was that an ordinary seaman (OS) was taking a cigarette break after lunch before reporting for his afternoon watch; 20 minutes later he was nowhere to be found. After several thorough searches of the vessel and surrounding waters, there had still been no sign of the missing crew member.
I came in early to the seafarers’ centre with our Catholic chaplain Wojciech to meet the ship as it arrived in Tilbury. Even if I had not been informed already by the police, I would have sensed that something was amiss as soon as I stepped onboard.
More crew members than usual seemed to have cigarettes in their hands and dark circles under their eyes. The cadet who led us to the mess room told me in Italian that “una cosa brutta” (an ugly thing) had happened on board. One of the crew seemed to nearly topple over with fatigue when he shuffled sleepily in to ask us if we wanted a coffee.
We had the chance to say some prayers with a few of the ratings, we asked for peace for them, for their voyage, and for the man’s family. We spoke a little, but mostly we listened. We listened to crew members rehash the same questions over and over, and replay the last few minutes they spent with their friend and colleague before he disappeared.
The conversations were a cycle of futile speculations – ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. I saw several pairs of eyes welling up until they suddenly looked down, avoiding eye contact that would inevitably prompt the tears to overflow. I think through these interactions we got a small glimpse of what had been playing on repeat in their minds over the past few days.
I also got a clearer picture of what life at sea really means. It often means tragedy, it always means isolation. It creates a bond that several seafarers have described to me as “brotherhood”.
That floating hunk of metal carrying souls is a home, at least temporarily, and these guys feel a real sense of responsibility for one another. That kind of community is something unique to the maritime profession and something I think outsiders have difficulty understanding.
When you are at sea you encounter the same people every hour of every day – you know their quirks, pet peeves, weaknesses, and strengths – and when a storm hits your life is literally in their hands. The nature of this community also means that when something stressful happens on board, it hits hard and almost always deeply affects the entire crew.
My heart goes out to this man’s wife and children who will likely never know the truth about what happened that day. I do know that our port chaplains in the Phillipines will visit with the family and try and do whatever they can for them in this difficult times.
In my view, this is one of the main reasons port chaplains exist. We can be a listening ear, one that is not in the thick of things, we can be a link to the outside world, and we are able to point those who are searching in the direction of the ultimate comforter and provider.