Baltic Sea

Stella Maris: the men who go down to the sea in ships

On August 3, 2021 at 4:30 p.m. the massive ship Always given weighed anchor in Felixstowe harbour. With a gross tonnage of 200,000 and a length of four football fields, she is one of the thirteen largest container ships in the world, owned by a subsidiary of a Japanese shipbuilding company and chartered by Taiwan-based Evergreen Maritime Shipping. ever given’s voyage had been eventful and gained international fame after she ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal.

She had stubbornly refused to move and clear the ship’s jam: as a result, over 300 ships, including five other container ships, 41 bulk carriers and 24 crude oil tankers, got stuck at either end of the canal for six days and more as it took time to get them floating again bring to. After being refloated, she was seized by the Egyptian government and held in Ismaila for three months pending clarification and payment of compensation.

As the Always given drew onlookers out in Felixstowe to see the maritime prodigy. However, one man, Julian Wong, was more interested in seeing the crew on board. The Port Chaplain for East Anglia and Haven Ports which worked for Stella MarisUK, the British arm of an international charity that cares for seafarers and fishing boats around the world, he had seen many huge container ships. His concern was for the crew – who were not allowed to go ashore. Early morning after Always given Once docked, he offered assistance and brought chocolates for everyone on board. The captain and first officer sent back a thank you note with a selfie. The ship was gone the next day, an average turnaround time.

Spending months at sea without setting foot ashore is a common experience for seafarers coming to the UK, many from Asian countries. Bigger ships, smaller crews, harder work. Although some of the most pressing welfare needs are found in more humble fishing vessels. The 2006 International Labor Organization (ILO) Maritime Labor Convention, to be ratified by 97 countries by 2021, “aims to establish minimum living and working conditions for seafarers to apply worldwide and be uniformly enforced, including the granting of seafarers’ shore leave” .

“Goals” is the key word. Shore leave, a crucial matter for health and well-being, depends on ship captains, who have complete control over who can board and disembark, but are themselves under pressure from shipping companies looking for profitability and safety faster and faster turns are aligned -um times. During the global Covid pandemic, hundreds of thousands of seafarers were not allowed to leave their ships at all. Many mental illnesses were the result. Vital medical needs were more than usual difficult to obtain.

Nine major shipping companies in three alliances dominate global container traffic. In 2021, profits from these shipping companies amounted to £157 billion. Before Covid, according to Nick Glynne on Radio 4, chief executive of the retail company Buy it direct, shipping companies calculated c. £2,000 to transport a standard 40ft container from China. At the height of the pandemic, the fee was between £16,000 and £20,000. For example, shipping a fridge from pre-Covid China cost the retailer £10. This rose to £100 during Covid while shipping companies’ costs rose by around 15%. Negotiations by the International Transport Workers Federation on the minimum wage for seafarers resulted in a modest increase: from £6,114 to £6,316 per year, effective from January 2023.

However, it took the callous dismissal of P&O ferries from its predominantly British workforce to replace cheap and non-union foreign labour, for the seafarers’ plight to draw public attention. The ‘M’ in RMT stands for Maritime, but a Filipino seafarer is unlikely to be able to join a union during a two-day layover in a UK port, even if he is allowed to disembark within the port area.

Stella Maris has 1,000 chaplains and volunteer ship visitors in over 300 ports in 54 countries. They report on work over the last three years and list their top three priorities: responding to the impact of Covid, supporting victims of abuse at work and responding to “abandonment”, i.e. the practice of seafarers thousands of miles from home depose away things go wrong. (Abandoning an abandoned ship can be a breach of contract — if the stranded crew are able to return home, they could lose their wages.)

Little was reported about the problems for seafarers caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Stella Maris provides very concrete emergency aid regardless of nationality. In Odessa, Father Alex Smerechynsky and his assistant Rostik Inzhestoikov are caring for families of seafarers fleeing Ukraine with the help of the Stella Maris Crisis Support Fund. Father Edward Pracz, Stella Marightis Chaplaincy for the Polish Baltic Sea port of Gdynia, on the west coast of the Bay of Gdańsk, has converted a retreat center into a home for around 50 women and children, families of Ukrainian seafarers.

Breaking the isolation of life on board is a routine element in Stella Maris‘ Work. Every year they offer seafarers internet access and thousands of free SIM cards to contact their families after long stays at sea. There is also a more intangible aspect of their work that makes visible the invisible labor force of international maritime trade – four billion tons of goods transported by sea at the turn of the century, rising to 11 billion today. These are the men and women who literally run the world economy.

For the past few weeks, anyone enjoying the sun on Suffolk Beach in Dunwich might have thought they should win today Program favorite beach contest, could see two bulky container ships on the horizon piling up to enter Felixstowe. Towering giant ships with the typical 40-foot containers like a floating Lego settlement. No romance of the choppy seas there, just a few dozen crew members, locked away, isolated and separated from their families for months, seemingly close, definitely indispensable, unseen.

A message from TheArticle

We’re the only publication committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make that is needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing during the pandemic. So please donate.