Article by The Rev. Earl Grout, Megan Laney, and Adam Conley
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers
for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
by The Rev. Earl Grout, Megan Laney, and Adam Conley
Deacon Earl Grout’s typical Wednesday morning routine involves donning steel-toed boots, gloves, a hard-hat, and reflective vest. This allows him to safely navigate the sometimes chaotic, always bustling world of massive crane booms, looming straddle carriers, and long, steep gangways that define urban shipping ports. For ten months of the year, one of the Seattle Service Corps members based at Saint Mark’s Cathedral joins him in this weekly endeavor as they make their way to the Port of Tacoma to visit seafarers—hardworking men and women who crew international cargo ships.
Once security has cleared their entry to the port, the ship visitors leave the familiar behind and enter a salt-soaked world that looks, sounds, and smells the same in ports the world over. This briny, liminal space is populated by a global citizenry in constant motion. In a sense, it has no national boundaries, serving as a waypoint in a vast web of connectivity that brings the world to our doors.
Over 26 million metric tons of cargo enter the combined ports of Seattle and Tacoma annually, which together make the third largest port on the West Coast. Each of the 700-plus cargo ships that enter Puget Sound every year carry around 20-25 seafarers from places in Asia and Eastern Europe like the Philippines, China, South Korea, Myanmar, Indonesia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Romania.
Crew members typically serve on nine-month contracts with a few months off in between contracts, while officers often serve four- to six-month rotations. Separated from their homes and loved ones for half a year or more at a time, seafarers live an emotionally isolated existence. Advances in technology and communication can lessen the burden, but the tug of physical separation from family is keenly felt. Even among a harmonious crew, as most are, claustrophobia and tensions easily set in.
Port calls bear no resemblance to a vacation cruise. While a seafarer might have a visa and shore pass from the captain, he (the vast majority, though not all, of seafarers are men) can’t go ashore for long. Most port calls last only two or three days, and much of that time is spent working. During normal times, a small but present number of seafarers lack visas, so they spend their entire commission aboard ship. During this era of COVID-19, most crews are not allowed off the ship at all, as dictated by company policy. As a result, our call to serve seafarers is more important than ever—we can provide material resources they would not have a chance of getting otherwise.
Commercial seafaring is one of the world’s most hazardous occupations due to the nature of cargo-handling operations, long hours, and often punishing natural elements. Winter storms, especially in the North Pacific, are notorious for their grueling impact.
The Seattle Seafarers Center is an affiliate of the Mission to Seafarers, a global organization founded by Anglican clergy in the 1830s to serve and support seafarers at ports of call across the British Empire. Today, this Seattle chapter of Mission to Seafarers is a ministry partner of the Diocese of Olympia, although ecumenical in scope. With support and volunteer ship visitors from Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, the Seattle Seafarers Center seeks to provide a ministry of presence, assistance and solidarity to any seafarer who calls at ports throughout Puget Sound.
This spring, prior to the restrictions forced onto ship visiting by COVID-19, Seattle Service Corps member Megan Laney visited four to six ships per week, sometimes more if ports were particularly busy. She will tell you that, while the job is time-consuming and at times exhausting, it is worth every moment of toil when the seafarers realize who you are and plead for you to break bread with them. You see, it is unusual to board a ship and not be asked to join a seafarer or two at their table for conversation with a cup of coffee, cookies, or even a meal. As Laney observes, “I get cups of coffee and plates of food practically shoved in my face on every ship I visit. Some of it is cultural, which allows for variation in what exactly that hospitality looks like, but mostly the seafarers are just glad to have someone onboard the ship who doesn’t have an agenda, who treat seafarers as fellow human beings and possible friends, and who are genuinely interested in their welfare.”
In addition to on-board visits and social connection, ship visitors like Earl Grout and Megan Laney offer van rides for those who can go ashore. Shore driving excursions include popular shopping destinations such as Costco and Walmart, or the occasional drop-in at the Center, where seafarers can use computers and Wi-Fi to reach home. The Center is currently navigating the desire to better serve crew members while maintaining safe procedures for visitors, and they have created policies that will enable crew driving to proceed as the pandemic continues to affect the world.
A highlight of the year for Deacon Earl occurs during Christmas and the weeks following, when ship visitors bring gifts for the crew. These are “ditty-bags” filled with toothpaste, soap, and other necessities along with a hand-knit watch cap. The bags and caps are made by dedicated parishioners across the diocese, and the bags are stuffed before Christmas by volunteers at Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, West Seattle, and other parishes. As long as they last, ship visitors bring one bag for each crew member, including the captain.
Deacon Earl observes, “I have thoroughly enjoyed my almost weekly day of ship visiting. Being a Navy vet, I love being on board the ships, but mostly I love meeting the seafarers with the [Seattle Service Corps members] I usually go with to the Port of Tacoma. We enjoy meeting mariners from around the world and hearing about their roles on the ship and their families.”
He goes on to say, “Maybe most important of all, the ship visits let the seafarers know that they are not invisible, but that they are valued... Someone in the outside world cares about them and their families.”
If you think you might like to support international seafarers, there are several ways to get involved:
Help with ditty-bag gifts. You can run a drive at your church to collect items for ditty-bags, or sew the bags, or knit the watch caps. Patterns can be found here: https://www.mts-seattle.org/knit-or-sew-for-ditty-bags
Volunteer as a ship visitor. You will need a transportation workers card (TWIC) from Homeland Security, receive some training from Mission to Seafarers, and be in good enough physical condition to climb onto the ships. Container ship gangways are usually fifty-five steps at a 45° angle, carrying a backpack of supplies.
For more information, please contact Barbara Blakistone at email@example.com.
 Swift, Cathy. “Five Fast Facts about Maritime Cargo.” Port of Seattle website. February 28, 2019, https://www.portseattle.org/blog/five-fast-facts-about-maritime-cargo.