By Lydia O'Kane
Life at sea is known for the challenges it presents to those who work in this sector. But this year has been particularly difficult for seafarers who have continued to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sea Sunday forms part of Seafarers Awareness Week which began on July 6. The Mission to Seafarers is one of the Christian charities taking part in this initiative. The Anglican organization was founded 150 years ago and gives care and support to seafarers in need.
Speaking to Vatican Radio, Canon Andrew Wright, the charity’s Secretary-General says that “never has it been more important” to reach out to those at sea with support and compassion.
Pandemic and Seafarers
“These last few months have definitely been the worst of times and obviously there’s been a whole range of challenges they face, most particularly around the issue of transit”, he says.
At this time, many workers who have come to the end of their contracts have to stay on board their vessels until they can disembark. They also may not have any option to renew their contracts.
Another issue, explains Canon Wright, is that a similar number have been unable to join their ships and this can mean significant hardship for those waiting to board. There is also concern over job losses.
“Many crew have lost their jobs, particularly of course in the cruise sector, says the Secretary-General.
The Mission to Seafarers
Asked about the services The Mission to Seafarers has been providing during the pandemic, Canon Wright points out that it has been a period of frenzied activity for his organization, and they have also had difficulty delivering their normal services. But he adds, elements of their face to face work have been continuing and that is now “gradually beginning to build up again as we emerge in many countries from the worst of the situation, at least for the moment.”
An area where the organization is continuing to made strides, is in the field of digital technology. “Chaplains and teams have significant social media networks that they’ve been using with the seafarers they come across”, Canon Wright notes. In particular, he says that they, along with their ecumenical colleagues have developed a “’chat to a chaplain’ facility which is enabling twenty-five chaplains to be in 24-hour contact with seafarers,” which has been much appreciated by those at sea.
He also emphasizes that “Family support networks, particularly in the Philippines and India”, have been highly pro-active, “because, of course, this has been a very stressful time not just for seafarers themselves but also for their families.”
This Sea Sunday brings together many of the Christian Churches for one great cause, and Canon Wright, who is also Chairman of the International Christian Maritime Association, underlines that “ecumenical working in the maritime mission and welfare sector has been really significant over many years". "We work very closely with Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea) and that’s vital; that’s really good for seafarers."
“It’s a great thing that Sea Sunday is something we hold in common, and that we in a sense, although we celebrate it in different ways, we celebrate it together.”
Gratitude and Support
Throughout this pandemic, seafarers have continued to work to ensure that our supermarket shelves are stocked and that people have food on the table. But often times, this tireless work can be forgotten, or indeed, taken for granted.
“We use the word ‘sea blindness’ because in many countries in the world people have forgotten the place that seafarers play in their lives”, says Canon Wright.
One of the things that has happened during the pandemic, he stresses, is ”people are realizing for the first time just what a debt they owe to these incredible men and women; these heroic men and women.”
Recently, Pope Francis sent a message to seafarers telling them, they are “not alone and they are not forgotten”. Canon Wright notes that at this difficult time, messages of support like these are so important. All of the Churches, he says, "share the view that the shipping industry itself, over these last months, has done a huge amount to try and make life as good as possible for these seafarers; to try and move the whole situation with governments forward, to allow transit and to allow crew change for example... and things are improving slowly, which is great news”. He also underlines, it’s important that governmental authorities and the wider world hear these messages so they can bring about change.