Neil McNicholas: We must not forget those who face peril on the seas

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THIS Sunday is “Sea Sunday”, a day on which the needs of seafarers – and the hardships and dangers of their work at sea – are remembered, with collections being taken in support of the Church’s ministry to them.

Between 1861 and 1870, there were over 5,800 shipwrecks around our coast with a resulting loss of just over 8,000 lives. Many of these wrecks were attributed to vessels being unseaworthy or overloaded – or both.

While we might assume that things have improved over the last 125 years, and in most respects they have, we might be appalled at what still goes on at sea in our name. I say “in our name” because, as an island nation, some 95 per cent of our imports and exports come and go by sea.

I grew up in Redcar within sight of the Tees mouth and yet, like most people with no direct connection with the port, I never really gave the situation of merchant seamen working on those ships a second thought. However, for some years, I served as Catholic Port Chaplain on the south of the Tees and my experience during that time was quite an eye-opener.

Many of the ships I would visit were huge bulk carriers, some in excess of a quarter of a mile long. A typical voyage for a bulk carrier or a container ship plying its trade, let’s say from Australia to the UK, then to Holland and across the Atlantic to the United States, and from the US to Korea or China and then back to Australia will be perhaps eight to 10 months. In all of that time, crew members get very little shore leave because turn-around times in port are as short as possible: time is money. They will make several such trips before they get home-leave to visit their families.

Some statistics I once saw stated that between 1990 and 1997, some 99 bulk carriers were lost at sea (that’s 14 a year or one every three weeks) with the loss of 654 lives. And yet, somewhat amazingly, we never hear about such losses because they involve foreign ships and foreign crews in foreign waters – and yet that is the price that may be being paid to serve our economy.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) reported that 626 ships were involved in sinkings, collisions, groundings, fires/explosions and other significant accidents in European waters in 2009 with the loss of 52 lives. I wonder just how many of these we heard about? Probably very few – even though they happened much closer to home.

Usually working in co-operation with our Anglican sister organisation The Mission to Seafarers, The Apostleship of the Sea is the Catholic Church’s outreach to the 150,000 merchant vessels that visit British ports each year bringing with them around one million international seafarers.

While the primary work of port chaplains worldwide is to minister to the spiritual and pastoral needs of seafarers when they are in port as advocates for them and their welfare, they also try to keep their eyes and ears open when they visit ships because all too often crew members are reluctant to speak up about problems on-board because of the powerlessness of their situation.

I remember being asked to celebrate Mass on board a small cargo ship. It was winter but there was no heating on-board and you could see your breath as you were talking. The Filipino crew clearly had very little in the way of warm clothing and there were obviously other problems though they wouldn’t say anything. The ship itself looked poorly-maintained and by the time I left I was sufficiently concerned that I reported the situation to the authorities.

An inspection team was sent immediately, before the ship could sail, and they discovered, first of all, that it was only licensed to ply its trade in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean – it should never have been in the North Sea.

The crew had been recruited directly from the Philippines but had been issued with no warm clothing. Below decks the inspectors could see daylight shining through holes in the steel plating of the hull – that’s how bad the rust was and how thin the steel plating was in places. It was immediately impounded as being unseaworthy and fit only for scrap.

The Greek owners insisted on repairing it but weren’t willing to pay what it was going to cost to have the work done on the Tees and requested permission for it be towed to a shipyard in Poland where the work could be carried out more cheaply. Only later did we discover that when it arrived in Poland the repair work was never carried out. The owners renamed and re-registered the ship, flew in a new crew who knew nothing about the situation and, still a death-trap, it sailed for the Mediterranean.

Generally things are much better than this – or at least they are in those parts of the world where ships are regularly monitored and inspected – and that’s why, thankfully, we rarely hear about losses in our own waters. But vigilance on the part of ship visitors and chaplains is always necessary because the incentive of commercial profit can cover a multitude of sins and putting lives at risk is too high a price to pay.