I had gone to meet with Father Colum Kelly, the Immingham port chaplain one May afternoon in 2009 on business unconnected to Stella Maris. little did i know what was about to happen. As our meeting finished Colum asked me if i would like a look around the docks and maybe accompany him on a ship to see what his work entailed. I was given appropriate ‘gear’ to wear and off we went. After visiting 3 ships I was in awe of it all and became a volunteer ship visitor. My first encounter with a seafarer is one I will always remember. His name was Thomas and he was part of an Indian crew. Our conversation began with me asking him how he was and about his family back at home. He told me he was missing his fiancee. I asked if he had a picture and he got out his phone to show me. She was beautiful and I told him so, apparently he was going to text his fiancee and tell her I said that! Thomas then asked me about wedding venues as they were trying to choose/decide on one and he began scrolling through his phone showing me the various places they were looking at, expecting my opinion on each one!! We continued chatting about how exciting a wedding was and the start of a new chapter in his life. I told him him a little about my own wedding many years before and the gift of two beautiful daughters. He thanked me for my time and looking at his pictures and our chat ended. I often wonder how the wedding went and how Thomas is. This first encounter was to lead me to see how important ‘being present’ for the seafarers is and the value of time and stories shared.
I became a volunteer after a friend told me of the need for helpers in Hull where I live. I come from a family of seafarers, my father working in the fishing industry for 40 years and several uncles both fisherman and merchant seamen. I also learned that my great, great grandfather was a master mariner, through researching family history.
I’ve also experienced first hand what it’s like to be at sea for months, away from family and friends, as I took part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in 2011/12. I can clearly remember the joy of being met by strangers who were willing to take the time to welcome you and provide food and info. Some even gave up their time to show us round the sights of the city.
I recently had the privilege to visit an injured seaman in hospital in Hull. His English was not good so communication was not easy, but he shared his worries about work and if it would be possible to get back to sea. He felt it wouldn’t. We talked and our Port Chaplain helped to organise family to come over to visit and it was lovely to hear that he was able to travel back home with his wife and son in time for Christmas.
I feel extremely privileged to be part of such a wonderful organisation as Stella Maris – to give whatever help I can to all seafarers. They all deserve it!
My mother was born of Scottish parents in the Argentine in 1919 and lived in Buenos Aires until 1942 when she travelled to Britain in a wartime convoy to be married.
She witnessed increasing Nazi influence in neutral Argentina in the build up to war. Some neighbours ran up flag poles with Nazi flags in the grounds of their houses and she remembered once going to confession and finding that whoever was the other side of the grill was clearly not a priest when she was asked quite inappropriately for information about her expatriate friends and acquaintances.
It was in this rather sinister environment that she became a ship visitor. Buenos Aires was a major port for British trade and both Merchant and Royal Naval ships were regular visitors to the River Plate estuary where, in December 1939, The Battle of the River Plate saw three British and New Zealand Cruisers bring about the end of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee which had been preying on merchant shipping across the Atlantic.
With a rich cosmopolitan culture, parks, striking architecture, café society, night spots, wonderful food and music and of course the exotic tango, Buenos Aires had long been known as the Paris of South America. The contrast between this and the tedium and tension of shipboard life especially in wartime must have been quite astonishing for young seafarers. My mother would have known all about the refinements of the city, she was courageous with a great sense of humour so with her as a guide they would have had an excellent tour of the city.
Her itinerary included tea-dances in the most glamorous winter gardens, a pure joy. In these circumstances she remembered Royal Naval sailors enjoying themselves in the same venue as their counterparts from German ships. They didn’t come to blows but took the battle to their opponents through the medium of music. British sailors in her care would bribe the orchestra to play British music while on the other side of the hall the band would be taking payment to play German popular and patriotic tunes. This tunes happily with a seafarers sense of humour, enjoying life, detached for a while from harsh reality.
At the end of her story, she always remembered her greatest challenge was to get her charges back on board under the beady eye of the Officer of the Day, at the end of the afternoon, sober. That’s where courage and humour were needed most.
I joined a newly formed branch of Stella Maris some Eleven Years ago, It was called ‘ The Apostleship of the Sea then.
I had been, and still am a Member of ‘ The Knights of St Columba ‘ for almost Forty Years and was looking for a new interest, also I am a Eucharistic Minister and I thought I could expand my Ministry to the Seafarers who are Ship Bound, sadly I have been unable to carry this work out as the turn around times are very tight here in Port of St Helier around two hours and the Crews are needed to unload and reload the Ship regardless if it is a Container Ship Lift on Lift Off or a Ro / Ro.
Over the Years our Branch has grown from the Founding Member and Leader Terry Brown to Nine active Members including One Lady Member, who looks after the Crews on the Fast Ferries. as they are mostly Women.
We have made excellent contact with the Base Management and the Captains of the Island’s largest Shiping Company which has made our work more enjoyable. One of our highlights of the Year has been our Christmas Gifts Programme which includes a Gift of Toiletries and a Woolie Hat for every Sailor that calls on board ship to Port of St Helier. this can entail visits to some 12 / 14 Ships at all ours of the Day or Night.
We have also carried out annual Fund Raising with a Sponsored Walk at St Catherine’s Breakwater, raising over £20,000 over the Years, We have decided to improve this further by Re-Branding it ‘ SeaTrek ‘ and get more people involved.
I am also The Secretary of our Branch and expanded that Role into ‘ Public Relations ‘ and this I have done by using the Airwaves of B.B.C. Radio Jersey, who have been superb with enthusiastic support, helps get the Branch and The Catholic Church of Jersey better known, and of course, it’s Free. The Local Press also have played their part over the Years in support and with Pictures.
We have over the years managed without a ship visiting Chaplain, but we hope shortly to correct that, as our new Island Parish Priest and Dean are very keen to support our work.
2020 has not been the best of Years to carry out our work due to the Coronavirus problem, but things are getting better and it has given us all an opportunity to reflect and to consider how we can serve these very special people in the future.
I have always had a love of the sea and went to sea at age 16 for a few years followed by working on American oil rigs. But eventually went ashore and after retraining worked in Social Services and became a Supported Housing Manager as well as being a Buddhist Chaplain in local Hospitals.
But when I retired and after 4 years living in China with my Chinese wife Jun we returned to the UK. I wanted to do some volunteer work and the opportunity came up to be a ship visitor for Stella Maris when I met with Peter Barrigan the Chaplain for Tees and Hartlepool, and my wife joined me a year later also as a ship visitor and being Chinese there have been many opportunities to meet Chinese crews and help them in so many ways.
A few examples that spring to mind are…
One Chinese ship that had spent weeks at sea sailing to the USA where the crew were not allowed ashore. Then sailing to Teesport and due to a misunderstanding they again believed they could not go ashore. The smiles on their faces when we explained that they could go ashore and what’s more we would take them was wonderful. We took them to the local towns, shopping,visiting places even spending quite a bit of time helping them to find fishing equipment, and when a few days later it was Chinese New Year Jun and I were invited to the ship to celebrate with them. The crew still over two years later keep in contact with us.
Another Chinese ship arrived at Teesport and whilst we were visiting we found out that a large number of the crew had been away from home for many, many months and were feeling homesick and in particular missing traditional Chinese food especially a Chinese vegetable called in English, Chinese Leek, very different from our Leeks. Now Jun had a Chinese friend who lived about 15 miles from us and we knew she loved to grow traditional Chinese plants so we phoned her, and yes she had lots of Chinese Leeks,and yes we could have some. That same day we were back on board the ship delivering a bag full of Leeks plus other foods and herbs to a very surprised and grateful crew. Many of the Officers and crew keep in regular contact with us through Wechat as they sail all around the world and they often say the welcome they get from people in the UK is the best.
We were having a busy day visiting lots of ships when we received a call from the Mission on the North side of the river to inform us that they had a Filipino family there who had drove over from the other side of the Country looking for a ship in which their brother was the Chief Engineer, and that the ship was on our side of the river. We arranged to meet the family and get permission for them to go on to the port and visit him on the ship with us. We took them to the ship and after a very tearful greeting ( they had not seen each other for over 3 years ), we arranged for him to go ashore with them, do some sightseeing then go back to the Lake District were they lived and stay overnight. The Chief Engineer had to be back at work the next morning so we had them bring him back to the Mission very early the next morning and Roger one of our ship visitors agreed to come down to the port and take him back to the ship.
These are just three of the many stories of our times visiting ships at Teesport.
They say “a picture paints a thousand words”. So, in your own mind, what is going through your thoughts right now when you look and study this photo that was taken on a lovely Saturday morning on 5th October 2019?
Since I started visiting ships back in December 2015, I have taken lots of photos of seafarers and they all tell a different story. Most of these stories were happy ones, they remind me of the friendship, the warm welcoming I receive on board or the amazing feeling of having given Holy Communion to a seafarer or seafarers on deck in the midst of all the noises and going on around us.
However, this photo that was taken on the 5th of October 2019 will stand out as to why Stella Maris ship visitors and port chaplains provide such a crucial role in supporting the seafarers.
On Wednesday 2nd October 2019 at about 10.00am, a cargo ship, Damsterdijk, was docking at Ipswich Port. The line broke and an Indonesian seafarer died after suffering a fatal injury to his leg, resulting in massive blood loss. I learnt about this incident 2 days later and the next day, I decided to make Damsterdijk my first ship to visit. The ship had already been visited by a Stella Maris port chaplain on the day of the incident. I knew the crew would be traumatised and as I was also a Eucharistic Minister of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Ipswich, I felt the urge to want to provide additional support – pastoral, religious, emotional or psychological to the colleagues of the seafarer who had died.
On my arrival and upon boarding Damsterdijk, I was met by 2 Filipino seafarers on deck duty. They were still very shaken up and traumatised by the incident. Very few words needed to be said by either of them or myself and some of the few words spoken on deck were the prayer Our Lord taught us. They were offered and accepted holy communion. They then asked if I would pray over the spot where their colleague suffered the fatal injury. A simple prayer was said which I hoped would help bring some comfort to them. I also blessed the spot and themselves with holy water taken from St. Mark’s church. They asked for the remainder of the holy water to be kept for their colleague who were having his rest period at the time of my visit. The 3rd officer took a photo as a remembrance of that day. This photo clearly stood out among the many photos I had taken with other seafarers on my ship visiting because each time I look at it I see the strains and pain on their faces – reminding me each time why this ministry is so important and why I am so privileged to be part of it. Seafarers are thousands of miles away from home, from their love ones doing a job so that we can live the lifestyle that we take for granted and that’s because 90% of everything we need in our everyday life comes by sea.
They are invisible to most people and it is part of our role as Stella Maris port chaplains and ship visitors to make them visible to the general public. We owe them so much and the least we can do is to support them and that is one of the main functions of Stella Maris.
I first came across Stella Maris on a voyage to the Far East & Australasia in 1975 calling at Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Singapore, Fremantle & Sydney. As this was my first trip, I used to go ashore initially with my boss, an experienced senior purser who always made a point of seeking out and calling in to the seamen’s mission. I greatly enjoyed the experience of meeting and mixing with people from different races and cultures not only ashore but in the mission with the added bonus of being able to phone home and relax in a safe and welcoming environment away from the relative confines of shipboard life. The port chaplains and their helpers were always on hand to offer advice and assistance. From time to time I was able to hear mass at local church and I particularly recall Our Lady Star of Sea in Chong Pang village in Singapore.
When I came ashore to work in Portsmouth I kept in contact as a supporter & volunteer ship visitor at Fawley near Southampton and when I finally retired to my home in Scotland I became a parish contact. Stella Maris has been a golden thread throughout my working life and I look forward to this continuing in the years ahead.
I’ve been a ship visitor with Stella Maris in Leith for about 13 years.
When it was advertised in the church Newsletter for volunteers, it was obvious to me that I should respond.
All my life I have been surrounded by seafarers – my uncle, three cousins, the fathers of two childhood friends – and it seemed very natural that I did in time marry a ship’s engineer.
I see my role as simply to let the seafarers know that the Church has not forgotten them and that there are people out there who care about them.
So I carry rosary beads to give them but also sweeties (all seafarers seem to like chocolate) and glossy magazines for the young women on the ships.
People ask me what qualities are required to make a good ship’s visitor and I don’t really have an answer.
All I can say is that if you go aboard with no other thought but to let the crew know that you are concerned for their well-being and are ready to listen, it will show in your manner and you will be well-received.
If a seafarer was in distress, I would stay with them as long as I could but contact the Port Chaplain who could give more support.
After a visit, I always light a candle in church for the ship’s crew.
One story does stand out; a crew eventually got paid after six months thanks to our chaplain working with the authorities to get them their wages. We were on our way to arrange transfer of the cash to their families and they were going home in the next few days. I was just there as a witness but it was great to be part of the joy.
Michael O’Connor always wanted to help seafarers from his days growing up just yards from the James Watt Dock in Greenock.
Michael would often head straight there from St Mungo’s Primary School to admire the fleet of ships arriving from all over the world carrying essentials goods.
Having gone on himself to spend much of his own career at sea, this long-time supporter knows exactly how providing practical and spiritual assistance can go a long way.
Mr O’Connor said: “I was fascinated from en early age about what it must have been like to work at sea with all its challenges.
“As part of the Legion of Mary in the late 1950’s, we reported every six months to Apostleship of the Sea headquarters in Carlton Place, Glasgow.
“We were encouraged to look after the well-being of seafarers. As an ex-seafarer, I know the feeling of isolation only too well.
“A kind word can go a long way when you’re a stranger on a foreign shore, and so can a cheery disposition.
“The seafarers say thank-you but, in reality, I’ve been the one leaving ships feeling humbled after a visit.”
Not much has taken Michael by surprise over the years but one occasion does stands out.
“On berthing in Greenock, one Filipino seafarer asked me where can I get a tyre? I immediately replied ‘what for?’
“He said that it was for his bike so I took him to nearby Halfords in Greenock.
“This young man was obviously switched on because the ports where ships arrive can be a bit of a distance from shops and amenities, so he’d come prepared.
“It’s the small things – or what might seem little to us – that are often the most important things in the lives of seafarers.”
I undertake ship visiting in the port of Falmouth, Cornwall. The port is predominantly a repair yard, and our visits are to the crews of the ships who remain on board. It is also the home to the Bay Class vessels of the Royal Fleet Auxillary as well as RFA Argus, which is mistakenly referred to as a Hospital Ship. It’s actual role is that of a Primary Casualty Receiving Ship with a 100-bed medical complex on board and acts as a floating hospital in time of war.
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) delivers worldwide logistic and operational support to Royal Navy military operations. They are the uniformed civilian branch of the Naval Service, staffed by UK merchant sailors. My son, Matthew, is employed within the RFA and one of his recent deployments was on RFA Argus.
It helps to remind me what Stella Maris does, in that it serves seafarers from across the world, regardless of belief, nationality or race, meeting their needs through the provision of help, support and advice. To that end it is comforting to know that when Matt is away and may be in need of support I know that someone across the world is looking after him as I look after other families seafarers in the UK.
On this particular evening, I undertook ship visiting with Falmouth’s Port Chaplain, John Pinhay. Having visited some crews in the port, we then went to Argus, and there met up with Matt. John also knows Matt through St Mary Immaculate in Falmouth where Matt was an altar server with John. This visit with Matt really brought it home to me the important and compassionate work which Stella Maris undertakes and I am delighted to be a part of this global family undertaking this work, which now has a personal side.