A Day in the Life of a Ship Visitor
A reflection from Julia Cooper, Director of Operations
Sometimes I get asked what a typical day is like at the Seafarers Center. That’s a hard question to answer, because every day is different, and we can never predict ahead of time what encounters we will have on ship visits. So instead I’ll tell you about a specific day, last Monday (October 9), which was full of interesting encounters and shows the variety of work we do at our Center.
In the morning, 3 crewmembers of a tugboat showed up at our door, one of them from Panama and the others from Venezuela. The captain explained that one of his crew needed to obtain a prescription for medication, and the other needed medical attention because something became lodged in his eye while he was working in the engine room. They were not sure where to go, since they do not have American health insurance, their vessel does not have a US shipping agent, and the tugboat owner was not reachable at the time. Could the seafarers center help?
We got in contact with Cyrus, our local representative of the ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation). The ITF represents the rights of seafarers and other transport workers, and we have a close partnership with them. Here’s a simple way to think about our relationship: we are often the first ones to hear about welfare issues from crews, and the ITF have the knowledge and authority to actually respond to those issues. We regularly call Cyrus to talk through situations and alert him of issues onboard.
While I looked into nearby free / low-cost health clinic options and Cyrus did some research on his end, we received a phone call from a fishing vessel docked in Seattle. The Fijian crew did not have US visas, and were wondering if there was any way for them to go ashore. When Cyrus called us back with some advice for the tugboat crew, we asked him about options for the fishing vessel - unfortunately, we could not help them obtain shore leave, but we let them know we were available for any other needs that came up.
We then received a call from a ship requesting rides to the Space Needle, so I set out to the terminal in one of our minivans. While I waited for the crewmembers, the security officer came over to talk with me. He is very friendly and I always enjoy seeing him when I visit this port. He looked especially fatigued, and he told me he had been working 36 hours straight because his company did not have anyone to relieve him. He had barely slept and hadn’t eaten since the day before, since he couldn’t even leave to get food. He explained that this happens often and he hasn’t gotten much help from his union. He was glad to see me though, and felt like he could talk to me.
The crew from the ship finally arrived at the gate, and before driving to the Space Needle, we made a stop at Subway and brought back a meal for the security worker. He gave me a hug before I left.
This is not the first time a port security officer has opened up to us about the challenges they are facing in their work or personal life. We encounter the same security workers on a regular basis, and I think they recognize that we are there to serve and can be trusted and confided in. While our work is primarily to serve seafarers, I am really glad we are also able to build relationships with and support these hardworking port staff.
After dropping off the crew at the Space Needle and giving them tips on how to get to Pike Place afterwards, I met Rich at the grain ship terminal. This is a terminal where you definitely don’t want to forget your work boots - the walk to the ship involves sludging through puddles, goose poop, and piles of soggy grain. When climbing up the gangway, it can be hard to tell if what’s falling from the sky is rain, soy, or corn.
At the top of the gangway, we introduced ourselves as the seamen’s club and the watchman clapped. “Yes! Do you have SIM cards?” The chief mate then led us inside to the officers’ lounge and asked, “What can we do for you?” Rich responded, “Well the question is, what can we do for you?”
When word spread that we had SIM cards, the entire crew showed up in the lounge, and we proceeded to set up over a dozen of them. We tag-teamed - Rich checked each phone’s compatibility, while I activated SIM cards on the compatible ones and troubleshooted the ones which weren’t working. It can be highly technical setting up a SIM card on an off-brand phone in a different language inside a steel ship with little service, but after hundreds of these, I think I’ve got the hang of it.
We concluded the day by driving a couple of the crew to Costco so they could replenish their ship provisions. They stopped by our Center briefly on their way back to the ship, and enjoyed taking a few minutes to relax.
Was this an example of a typical day as a ship visitor? No, not really. There were some unique welfare issues which we don’t encounter every day. But in another sense, yes, it was a day like any other: full of twists and turns, fueled by great teamwork, and focused on caring for the seafarers in our port.