Caring for Seafarers During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Image: Chaplain Gary Roosma, Ministry to Seafarers Vancouver (Facebook)

Published Mar 18, 2020 3:08 PM by Susan Huppert

Ship visits by chaplains from seafaring centers are normally a primary contact for meeting seafarer’s needs while in port. The opportunity for face-to-face contact is slimming quickly as fear of the spreading epidemic rises. Regardless of location, North American centers are working to provide care in new ways.

The mood on ships has changed, according to Chaplain Steve Finnesy. “Seafarers are seriously concerned about exposure, viewing those who board their vessel as potential carriers, and [they] are apprehensive to get off,” said Finnesy in Tampa, Florida, where crews of five cruise ships are on lockdown for two weeks and other vessels need to be contacted. "I will start wearing a mask for their comfort when I board vessels.”

Seafaring is a work of unforeseeable variables. However, responding to a pandemic is new for everyone. “Seafarers are conditioned to hardship,” said Kent Williams, who manages a seafaring center in Fort Vancouver, Washington. But passing through an invisible, global health threat is tough. Outreach is changing daily with new directives from political and religious governing bodies. Port authorities, non-profit boards, the Coast Guard and ship’s captains are weighing in. Fluctuation is the new certainty. 

The Fort Vancouver center is taking a two-week pause since all of the volunteers are over age 70 and ship visits are suspended. Seafarers remain onboard.

“We need to find a balance between the mandates from Christ and a level-headed response,” said Williams, a 16-year chaplain. He suggests that one way to keep serving seafarers is to leave small packages at the gangway, much like seafaring centers do at Christmas. 

Galveston Seafarers Center’s Port Chaplain, Karen Parsons, identifies with the seafarers concerns and is in high gear with new methods of outreach.

“We need to continue to minister without our physical presence,” she said. “Developing an extensive correspondence ministry is possible. We can send care packages, write letters, and offer prayers for seafarers and their families. If we are deemed non-essential people for boarding ships, we can send our message with essential ones.”

The feedback from Galveston concurs with Tampa and others that the seafarers are very concerned about their home countries and nervous about disease transfer with agents and others who board their ships.

The Philippines announced strict home quarantine measures for half of its population, shut down of transport networks and ordered businesses to close or operate remotely, according to Reuters on Monday. Philippine President Duterte said, “Make no mistake, we are in the fight of our lives.” This has led to added anxiety and extended contracts for at least two Filipino seafarers in Port Manatee. “We need to let seafarers know that they are not alone,” Parsons said. She has a practice of praying a blessing for vessels, adding that “blessing their ship is really important to them."

Maintaining positive relationships with others who board vessels is important. This can be a means of reaching seafarers with “care” data as well. Chris O’Brien works in Gulfport, Mississippi, where Dole, a regular tenant, has denied all shore leave. The owner of three ships from Mexico which dock Port Manatee has also decided no shore leave is available.

O’Brien independently visits the ships he oversees. He continues to use Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp. These social web options work well for interaction and may be avenues for others to explore.

Although other seafarers may have shore leave, coordinating transportation and a comfort-level for seafarers to disembark seems sketchy at best.

So, how do we care for people with such fluctuating circumstances? Show daily consideration for others onboard to calm their fears. View new challenges as opportunities. Engage electronically with seafarers. Stay in touch with each other. Share our ideas and provide timely feedback on what is working so we can develop our best practices. Finally, remain fluid in our thinking and constant in our care.

Susan Huppert is a writer for The MARE Report, the news magazine for the North American Maritime Ministry Association. With members in more than 50 ports around North America, NAMMA’s mission is to support those in maritime ministry with professional development, fellowship, and advocacy. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.