Article by Elly Green
The story of the mission begins in 1836 when a child asked his father, “who looks after the invisible?” When John Ashley’s son asked this question, he had no idea the significance of his pondering. What occurred next is like stones skipping on water—the ripples outlast the initial drop. The curiosity of Ashley’s son is the genesis moment for what is today, the Mission to Seafarers. It took less than a year for Ashley to create the Bristol Channel Mission which would later spearhead the formation of the Mission to Seamen in 1856 (later renamed Mission to Seafarers).
In a world besieged by multinational corporations and the immediacy of social media, it’s no wonder over 90% of international trade is transported via the seas. There are 1.5 million seafarers working world-wide and with over 200 active MtS ports, volunteers are accessible from Edinburgh to the Falkland Islands, Seattle to Tomakomai, and 50 countries in-between. Our focus is the well-being of the men (and the less than 2% of women maritime workers) who are contracted on these vessels. Volunteers, like myself, assist with practical, emotional, and sometimes spiritual needs of the crew. Boiled down, the focus is pastoral care. It can be dangerous business aboard these vessels. Routinely seafarers risk the danger of fatigue and isolation and are threatened with chilling worst-case scenarios of piracy and shipwrecks. Now if you’re asking yourself what in the world motivates a person in that position, the answer is simple: family. These men are first and foremost working for the betterment of their loved ones.
During my visits aboard these mighty yet indiscernible ships, I’ve heard accounts of the unavoidable consequences of the career. Weeks into my internship, I met a man who had left his pregnant wife behind and was fifteen days away from being a father and forty-five away from the completion of his contract. This man was missing the birth of his firstborn in order to make a living more financially rewarding than nearly anything available in his home country. A month later when his ship redocked, I had the absolute privilege to take him shopping for baby clothes. We chatted over coffee and he shared his prize possession—photos of his son. Visiting a ship for the first time can be clunky and awkward. You want to be unassuming while also maintaining a warm and inviting presence. It’s understanding you aren’t entitled to the stories but privileged when they are shared. Countless of men speak of wives, children, and loved ones that are far and away. I’ve met husbands who have been on contracts longer than they’ve been married. One man started his new assignment only six days after his wedding. It is this deep love and commitment that keep seafarers working. They yearn for calls home if only to speak for a minute. Last week I met an engineer who can only afford a three-minute facetime before switching over to an audio call.
However, for young and unestablished seafarers this reality isn’t as bleak. We recently hosted two German cadets who are on track to become officers post-graduation. One is studying maritime engineering while the other is focusing on nautical navigations. These two young men aged 19 and 20, have dreamt of the sea since childhood. Their studies require six months experience on a ship shadowing more senior officers who can show them the ropes and the expectations of a career at sea. When we talked, they discussed the challenges of the work but were more excited to share the sense of comradery and independence they’ve experienced. The week prior, I was talking to a young man the same age as me (23) who was recently promoted to third officer. Only on his second contract, he still felt unprepared regarding his duties and every experience was a new one. Learning on the job is an expectation, but a challenging reality when others are dependent upon you. He spoke of his anxiety and self-doubt during more difficult weeks but said the highlight of his posting are the two friends from university who are also on the ship with him. When you’re at sea, comfort is the knowledge the guy next to you is experiencing the same hardship. You celebrate together, you grieve together, and you find strength in the realization you aren’t alone.
My role as a volunteer is simple: take inspiration from the curiosity of a child and be open to greet what happens next. Every day I pack a bag, grab a hard hat, and leave my ego at the door. It’s all that easy and all that hard.