THE sacrifice of those who “go down to the sea in ships” will be recognised this Sunday, Sea Sunday. The annual observance is organised by the Anglican charity the Mission to Seafarers, which offers support and chaplaincy to more than 1.5 million seafarers around the world.
One of its eight port chaplains is John Attenborough, who is based in Southampton, where some half a million seafarers dock every year (Back Page Interview, 4 November 2016). He leads a team of lay and ordained chaplains and volunteers serving the UK and Europe region.
“Sea Sunday is a time to stop and think how much seafarers do for every one of us every day, whether we are landlocked, or live on a sea coast,” he said this week. “Seafarers bring in 95 per cent of the goods we need every day — from tea, coffee, and chocolate to clothes, cars, and the technology in your pocket.”
The Mission to Seafarers also has port chaplains serving the Gulf and South Asia, East Asia, Africa, Australia, Canada, Oceania, and the United States. The teams support seafarers on incoming container ships, car carriers, and passenger liners. Besides offering prayer and pastoral support, volunteers bring Christian literature, newspapers, phone-top-up and internet cards, and operate a free evening and daytime transport service to the nearest town.
“You are a friendly face in a foreign place,” Mr Attenborough said. “I met one seafarer this week who had not been off his ship for four months because of the quick turnaround.
“It is the Mission going on board that brings a sense of normality — an extra person to talk to, to nip to the supermarket to buy chocolate or toothpaste, because they don’t have the time.
“Another man was looking forlornly at one of our Bibles. I said he could have it for free, and his face lit up. It was like we had given this guy a new car: his persona changed; he was happy. A small little act of kindness can make a huge difference.”
Seafarers face loneliness, isolation, abandonment, limited contact with family, and even shipwreck in their work, which is often emotionally, physically, and psychologically stressful, and can lead to mental-health and other long-term issues, the Mission says.
Recent research from the World Health Organization suggests that seafarers are the second profession, worldwide, most at risk of suicide. Mr Attenborough said that the increased efficiency of the shipping industry has taken its toll in the 20 years that he has been a port chaplain.
“The stress on the seafarers has become worse because the ships come in and out much quicker, and, when you are stuck on a car carrier for nine months, and you are in port for a matter of hours at any one time, there has to be a consequence.
“It is getting so good that consideration is not being given to the human element; it is that time needed away from the ship to have a breather and relax. The ship is not just their work: it is their home and social place. But shipowners are running a business, not a charity; so it is in their interest — and that of the seafarers — to make sure that business is profitable.”
Although the Mission had a good relationship with the industry, more support would be welcome, he said. “We are not there to cause trouble or examine problems: we are there to help the seafarers and ultimately everyone who relies on them.”
Sea Sunday was an important reminder for communities and churches to “think that little bit wider” about the work they did, he said.