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Spare a thought for those at sea 

31st March 2020

Libby Purves reports

We may be tiring of tales about the outraged shock and awe of us non-key workers mewed at home with family, Wi-Fi, and slightly restricted shopping opportunities. I do not exempt myself from the grumblers but today I am preoccupied by another cribbed and confined population, whose conditions are rarely mentioned. Consider the merchant seafarers: provisioning the globe but largely invisible behind the tossing seas and the massive secure terminals. It is never an easy life, but now harsher and more alarming in the coronavirus crisis
The streets and squares may be empty and the skies quieter (airfreight, usually some 40% of UK imports and exports, is suffering from grounded aircraft and spiking prices) but the seas are still busy. Glance at the marine traffic website and see the coasts still swarming with tankers, container ships and bulk-carriers bound to and from every compass point. Goods, components, chemicals, vital needs, and frivolous ones, are still coming and going despite the Far Eastern slowdown. Ships feed, fuel, and supply the world, manned by ever smaller, lonelier crews: of the world’s 466,000 officers and 721,000 ratings, mostly men, at least a third are at sea. It is the second most dangerous trade after deep-sea fishing; some 2,000 seafarers die every year. International regulations protect them, not always effectively
Consider their situation now. Restricted shore leave has been an increasing problem since 9/11: some countries, notably the US, refuse even a step ashore for fear of terrorism and migrancy. But even ordinary container ships often have such tight turnarounds that crews, who may have been months at sea, can only go on land in their couple of hours off, using a charity-funded minibus (too dangerous to walk along those majestic Felixstowe quays), and spend an hour in the Mission hut

It is touching to see Filipino or Indonesian seamen there buying Tower of London souvenirs from the Mission to Seafarers — the much-loved ‘Flying Angel’ — to take home to show their families they travelled to England. Though, in reality, they never even got an hour in a Felixstowe pub. If you go aboard as a visitor with the missioners, climbing the skyscraper sides of a vast ship, you are welcome: if you’re a woman the crews want to show you pictures of their families

On top of that ordinary loneliness and remoteness, the shipping industry is often commercially precarious: even in ordinary times there are regular reports of ships abandoned, crews left hungry and unassisted on board or in distant ports, dependent on charities or local pity. Suicides are not uncommon: a recent survey revealed that a fifth of them had thought of self-harm

So now consider how much more intense in this crisis is the isolation of seafarers: confined on bleak steel decks with wild grey horizons, their six-month contracts extended because relief crews can’t travel. Anxiety is spiking: last week Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) reported an unprecedented flow of pleas about nonpayment of wages, contracts being renewed without consent, and crews being left in foreign ports without money or flights home. Imagine the anxiety they are feeling about distant families. Most of the world’s ratings are Filipino, Chinese, Indonesian, Russian, Ukrainian, or Indian, who will be contemplating health services at home that are far less prepared than Europe’s

Last week HRAS and others formally called on governments to recognise seafarers as key workers, regardless of nationality: unions and owners in the UK Chamber of Shipping have issued a joint statement calling on the government to protect them as a vital resource during the crisis and a safeguard for industry’s future as we recover. There are moves by major satellite providers to improve connectivity on board ship, and reduce the cost to individuals of that vital emotional lifeline. Charities and better ports do what they can

But seafarers easily get forgotten, as through much of history, because we don’t see them at work. I am always moved by stories from the Mission to Seafarers, with their 200 port offices, many now closed: perhaps its Christian core makes it publicly underrated (despite the splendid hands-on patronage of Princess Anne, usually a regular ship visitor). Its chaplains are now confined to gangways in protective suiting, but they soldier on. In Europoort Rotterdam the other day their chaplain, Dennis, visited three container ships, pleased that the Dutch don’t enforce masks because “it’s important for seafarers to see our face. One nearly cried when I told him I was the last chaplain still visiting ships in Europe’s biggest port. They are anxious but lonely. Many have forgotten about them. All seafarers’ centres and churches have closed. No one wants them, yet we want the goods they transport. One captain wrote to me this morning, saying: ‘Thank you for coming on board in such difficult times’ ”

When Cyprus went into lockdown, another chaplain laboriously won permission from both the archbishop and the minister of shipping to travel to Limassol to deliver simple care packages to a gangway. “It’s only something small, but it shows that someone is thinking of them”

The Mission and others have joined the request to world governments to give ‘key worker’ status to merchant crews, parallel to airline and medical personnel, so they could be helped to travel home and have welfare centres kept open at ports in the pandemic. As for the rest of us, I suppose all we can do is back that politically and support the charities. And to remember, in our comparative if tedious comfort, those who serve us in great waters

first published in The Times newspaper Monday 30th March 2020