AS cargo ships dock at the Port of Brisbane a Seafarers’ Mission minibus arrives to pick up crews for a few hours ashore and respite from their gruelling jobs.
The Stella Maris Mission to Seafarers is a part of the worldwide Catholic Apostleship of the Sea Ministry, supported in Brisbane by Centacare Pastoral Ministries.
The crew members are Filipino, Polish, Indian – in fact most nationalities – and their giant ships arrive around the clock from ports across the world.
They are some of the 1.5 million seafarers (the majority of them coming from developing countries), who toil and sacrifice to make our life more comfortable by transporting almost 90 per cent of the world’s goods.
Most seafarers sign up for at least nine months on board a ship. It means long stretches away from their family.
“It’s not like getting on a cruise ship. There are twenty to twenty-five on board a ship – in a steel cabin in their off hours, with four steel walls to look at, not much else,” Apostleship of the Sea – Stella Maris Centre manager at Wynnum on Brisbane’s Bayside Lloyd West said.
An electrician by trade, Mr West enjoys his workplace which is similar to other Stella Maris operations near ports around Australia.
“I feel I’m doing my bit,” he said.
“For seafarers it is a very lonely life. A lot have suffered from depression – the fact that they are away from their family for so long.
“They can be on a ship where everything is happy, or they can be on a not-so-happy ship and they’ve got to suffer in silence.”
At the wheel of the Seafarers’ Mission minibus, Alex Malaver waits patiently for crews to clear Customs inspections, leave the ship terminal and jump aboard.
“Sometimes they are just looking for someone to speak to,” the 37-year-old Colombian, who joined the Seafarers’ Mission about a month ago, said. “I feel I know how they feel.”
Mr Malaver’s fluent Spanish helps break the ice with some of the foreign crews.
“Whatever their nationality or belief they are welcomed into the Seafarers’ Centre,” he said.
Mr Malaver brings the crews into the Stella Maris centre, across the road from the Guardian Angels Church in Wynnum, where men can exchange small amounts of money so they can go shopping.
They can relax in a lounge room, play pool or spend some quiet reflective time in the centre’s chapel. The centre is open from 9am to 10pm Monday to Friday and Mr West is assisted by Barry Guest who alternates day and evening shifts with him.
The chance to use one of the centre’s computers to connect to the Internet is one of the biggest drawcards. Most ships don’t allow their crews to use the Internet while at sea because of the satellite connection costs.
“The only time they get to contact their family is from a centre like this one, and those around the world,” Mr West said. “They miss so much of their family life by being on board ship.
“They are there, most of them, for the money to support their family because they come from poorer countries, so coming to a place like this they can get on the Internet, get on Facebook.”
Working as crew on board a coal transporter, a car carrier or industrial container tanker involves long shifts in a highly pressured environment, often with a quick turnaround at port before heading back to sea.
Seafarers commonly face mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety or thoughts of suicide. According to a recent UK P&I Club research project, suicide is the top cause of seafarers’ death at sea.
Mr West often finds himself listening to seafarers’ tales about their lives at sea.
“Most of these seafarers come from poorer nations and life is very cheap in those countries,” he said. “They are trying to better themselves, and their family, and it doesn’t always work out.
“There are always going to be accidents, and a percentage of seafarers disappear, either throw themselves over or are thrown over.”
Mr West also hears stories of sub-standard working conditions at sea – “lack of clean water, lack of food, or smaller issues like the captain won’t fix the washing machine”.
“If the food is not good, then the health of the crew will start to suffer,” he said.
“A lot of these things are being picked up by AMSA (the Australian Maritime Safety Authority) when they do their inspections.”
Foreign crews are accepted and liked in Wynnum. It is common to spot groups of seafarers sightseeing along Wynnum’s waterfront and the main shopping streets, stocking up on groceries and buying souvenirs.
“They often comment how uncrowded the shops are,” Mr Malaver said.
Parishioners from Guardian Angels and another Redlands parish at Alexandra Hills knit beanies which are given to every visiting seafarer.
The Alexandra Hills parish also supplies toiletry bags and Christmas hampers.
“You can tell by the look on their face when they leave they have had a good time and they appreciate what has been done for them,” Mr West said.
He said he was inspired by the Gospel verse Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in”.
“Everybody is a stranger the first time you meet them,” Mr West said. “I think if you can do something to help seafarers because they aren’t always in a position to help themselves.
“It might be only something small and they take that away (and) they are extremely grateful.”