Seafarers’ mission a beacon for crews

United Seafarers’ Mission Tauranga chaplain John Limrick. Photo: John Borren

The United Seafarers’ Mission Tauranga is providing small comforts for crews stuck at sea for months on end.

Three men from the mission have taken on the job of supporting seamen who must remain on-board when they dock at the Port of Tauranga.

Mission chaplain John Limrick and welfare officers Kevin McFetridge and Mark Hassett are the only people from the mission allowed on-board, and only one person can be a point of contact for a particular ship.

All ships are given a welcome pack, and the mission have set up an ordering system so shipmates can buy things without coming ashore.

Kevin, Mark and John provide a listening ear for those that need it, and link them to extra support services if required.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, crews could freely disembark for shore leave. Now, it is only granted if all crew test negative for Covid and it has been at least 10 days since their last foreign contact. Until recently it was 14 days without foreign contact.

Ten to 14 days between ports is not a common occurrence, so the majority of seamen must remain on their ships.

The mission had at least 15,000 seafarers through its doors per year before the border restrictions came into force. So far this year there have been around 600.

Keeping positive

Engineer Jason Lauron from the Philippines was on shore leave in Tauranga, but had been on-board for four months before reaching New Zealand. His longest stint without shore leave is eight months.

He says before the pandemic you could be a tourist in different countries.

“In this pandemic, you sometimes feel depressed. Sometimes you’ll feel unhappy because every time you work on-board it’s normal, but if you can’t go ashore for a long time it’s a different feeling.”

Jason knows of people who have wanted to end their lives because they felt trapped on the ship.

He tries to give “positive energy” to his co-workers so they don’t feel alone or depressed.

A Yale University study in 2019 found a “significantly higher” prevalence of depression in seafarers: 25 per cent compared to six per cent in the general population.

The study found 17 per cent of seafarers have anxiety and 20 per cent have suicidal thoughts.

This has increased since the pandemic, and a World Maritime University study in 2020 found more than 40 per cent of participants experienced symptoms of depression while more than half reported symptoms of anxiety.

Life on-board

Kevin has been a welfare officer with the mission since September, and having not worked in the maritime industry before, he was shocked by how restrictive life is on-board a ship.

“It’s very prison like,” says Kevin.

“You can’t ring home on the ocean. You’re just at the peril of the ocean, so it can be pretty daunting.”

Chaplain John knows all too well what seafarers are facing and how they feel. Before Kevin and Mark started in September, he was the only support person allowed on the ships after border restrictions were put in place early last year.

John was working up to 60 hours a week and some weeks “nearly killed him”, but he did it because the “hidden workforce” on ships need help.

Some of the seafarers are facing up to 18 months on a ship without shore leave or the chance of returning home because Covid has created difficulties when changing crews, with only certain countries allowing workers to disembark.

John says more work needs to be done by the industry to allow for more frequent crew changes.

“So people can get jobs, and people can get back to some sort of normality.”


Spreading cheer

The mission team busily prepare orders of chocolate, food, electronics, toiletries and gifts for loved ones at home, to deliver to the ships once they reach port.

As well as delivering the welcome pack and orders, they’ll attempt to help with any requests and have also delivered McDonald’s, pizzas and local delicacies.

Mark says one crew was ecstatic to get a McDonald’s delivered.

“It’s small things, but it’s what lifts the mind, their spirits are lifted,” says Mark.

One of the quirkiest requests was for fresh pigs’ ears for a special feast, but because the majority are dried for dog treats they were unable to deliver.

Tauranga mission manager Murray Smith buys hundreds of blocks of chocolate each week, which raises a lot of questions at the supermarket.

He says when he explains to people what it’s for, they’re blown away.

“The general public really doesn’t understand what seafarers are going through,” says Murray.

“With limited shore leave, they’re literally being imprisoned on their ships for months at a time.”

This mission is also putting together 450 Christmas packs filled with chocolate, calendars and fridge magnets to bring a bit of cheer to those spending Christmas Day at sea.


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