The death and rebirth of seafarer centres in the UK

In-port welfare services offered by seafarer charities are evolving - but there remains no substitute for face-to-face interaction

seafarers awareness4

Three major seafarers’ centres in the UK have closed their doors in the past two years. There’s a certain sentimentality attached to these centres, but the question is: does it really matter that they’re closing?  

Southampton’s Centre for Seafarers closed in April last year after a 130-year history, and was the last fully manned facility in the port area. Its facilities included a chapel, bar, entertainment, phones, internet and counselling from dedicated port chaplains, but managers said only one in 50 visitors to the port used the centre, making it no longer viable.

Milford Haven International Seafarers’ Centre and the Mission to Seafarers’ centre in Cardiff both closed their doors in early 2015 due to declining visitor numbers. 

“The Mission to Seafarers closed its centre in Cardiff and has been part of the ecumenical boards, which closed Milford Haven and Southampton. In each of these cases, seafarers were using their limited shore leave to go to town in order to send money home or purchase some toiletries and gifts,” explains Ben Bailey, the Mission to Seafarers’ assistant director of advocacy and regional engagement. The charity has a presence in 20 UK ports and has focused its services on areas in which other seafarer organisations provide little or no cover.

Charities say the decreasing number of seafarers using centres is due to tighter security and shorter vessel turnaround times – sometimes crew don’t even have time to leave the ship and typically spend between six and 24 hours in port, rather than several days. This has meant that seafarer support and welfare services have shifted to within the port area, most often onboard vessels themselves.

“It is really the larger seafarers’ centres that have closed, beginning 20 to 25 years ago. Those with accommodation, chapels, dance halls and canteens weren’t able to both generate enough revenue to be sustainable, but more importantly they weren’t meeting the needs of most of the seafarers visiting UK ports. Most seafarers didn’t have time to visit a seafarers’ centre during their brief stay in port,” explains John Green, director of development for Apostleship of the Sea (AoS). The charity has 17 port chaplains and 120 volunteer ship visitors in the UK, who visit and provide for support for seafarers on a combined 10,000 ships each year.

Over the past decade or so, smaller charity-run facilities have cropped up in the UK, which typically sell phone cards, provide internet access and a lounge away from the ship. As John Green notes, the function of these centres has been to provide communication facilities so seafarers can connect with their family and friends at home. But this service is nearing obsolescence and has led John’s organisation to reorganise the way in which it provides support.

“AoS considered that the lifespan of these centres would be limited and the decline in footfall continued,” he explains. “The fundamental seafarer needs of communications and transport drove a forward-looking strategy of active ship visiting by AoS over the last 15 years, where the focus was not on waiting for seafarers to come to the centre but rather to go to them onboard.”

Interestingly, AoS says provision of phone cards and SIMs has been in decline, so for the past three years its port chaplains have been equipped with mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, meaning seafarers can connect with those at home without having to leave the ship.

chaplain vessel visit large

The Mission to Seafarers, meanwhile, has worked with smaller ports in recent years to provide port-wide Wi-Fi. “This took place in the north-west of England and for which we worked closely with the port authorities and the MNWB [Merchant Navy Welfare Board],” says Ben Bailey. “Many of our requests for help come through our website, social media, email or text channels, and so we take digital chaplaincy seriously.”

Seafarers’ charities are increasingly using technology to supplement the support they offer. The Sailors’ Society has two apps for mobile devices. The ShipVisitor app helps members of the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA) prepare for visits and report in real time, which the charity says provides continuity of care for seafarers as they travel from port to port. 

The Sailors’ Society’s free Wellness at Sea app, meanwhile, enables seafarers to contact a chaplain while in port; provides port information and helpful tips on keeping safe, plus interactive challenges. The charity says a new version of the app is due to be released “imminently”.

“Seafarers often use social media to contact us in an emergency and we have set up a Crisis Response Network to help those in need,” adds Sandra Welch from the charity. The charity has doubled the number of its active chaplains worldwide – the charity has 23 active chaplains in the UK, plus a number of volunteers

AoS, however, will be focusing on  face-to-face meetings. “One mustn’t lose sight of the immense value of the work of an AoS port chaplain, an independent friend in a port, often the only person who is there solely to help the crew with whatever welfare needs they may have,” says John Green. “This can’t be replaced by technology, be it apps, Wi-Fi or other impersonal contact. Isolation and loneliness remain serious problems and so provision of technology must have the same priority as the personal ship visit of an AoS port chaplain.” 

In fact, all the charities we spoke to place particular emphasis on the value of ship visits to seafarers. 

“What we are noticing is that when crews have the time, they want to talk,” says Ben Bailey from The Mission to Seafarers. “Seafaring is as pressurised today as it was 100 years ago, if not more so, and crews come to us with questions and comments knowing we will help where we can and provide confidential support.”

Sometimes crew can’t or don’t want to leave their ship while in port, so vessel visits provide convenient and valued support. Seeing a friendly face and having a conversation can count for so much, chaplains say.

“On one occasion, a Filipino seafarer came up to me and just leaned on to me and cried because he was missing his family so much. And all I can really do is be there for him,” says Rev Roger Stone, AoS’s Southampton port chaplain. “Everybody is welcome. Everybody deserves and receives the ministry that I can offer.”

Bryony Watson, AoS’s Immingham port chaplain, says she offers a lot of practical help to seafarers when she visits ships. She provides SIM cards, mobile phone top-up cards and warm clothing in the winter to the seafarers she visits, as well as transport to local shops. Nevertheless, she sees simply being available as an important part of her role. “Port chaplaincy is about being present, being there, whether that means standing on a cold deck in the rain for an hour, or chatting over coffee in a mess room,” she says. 

“Even though the crew seem to have a good relationship with each other, the time they are able to spend together is very limited. I visited the chief officer during his lunch break, and found that he would have been eating alone, had we not been there,” Bryony says.

There’s a perception that access to onboard Wi-Fi is increasing on merchant vessels, but seafarer charities say there remain many vessels that go without. The Wi-Fi hotspots provided by chaplains and volunteers are much needed.

“The rise in technology has meant that crews on newer ships often have access to email/internet whilst at sea – although there is a huge amount of work to be done in this area, as the number of vessels with that technology appear far and few between,” Ben Bailey explains.

Although it is a fact that certain seafarers’ centres in the UK have closed, others are evolving in the service they offer and new ones are opening. One size does not fit all, says Sandra from the Sailors’ Society, which aims to offer “bespoke” services to seafarers depending on the port location and requirements. “For example, seafarers are generally drawn to places where there is a variety of facilities that they can use, so in Southampton we are opening a new centre that will be in a more central location and offering a range of new services,” she says.

Liverpool Seafarers Centre (LSC), for one, has just launched £40,000 hub at Queen Elizabeth II Dock in Eastham on the Wirral. The facility will work in partnership with the maritime charity’s HQ at Colonsay House in Crosby as it supports the 50,000 seafarers who pass through the ports of Merseyside every year. The Eastham hub was supported with donations from the Merchant Navy Welfare Board, Essar’s Stanlow oil refinery in Ellesmere Port, Peel Ports and others.

The Wirral centre also provides seafarers with bicycles with which to exercise or cycle to nearby shops.

This year, The Mission to Seafarers hopes to open a brand new seafarers’ centre in Port Talbot, Wales, which the charity says will be the first major new centre in the UK for more than a decade.

“There remains the need for centres,” says John Green from AoS, “but only in the degree that it meets seafarers’ needs; communications, a safe place away from the ship and a more humane environment.”

apostleship chaplain


Images courtesy of Apostleship of the Sea.

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