Challenges to Seafarers' Welfare in Caribbean Ports

Seafarers' House, San Juan, PR

Published Oct 12, 2017 2:15 PM by Dr. Michael Skaggs

Even as the Caribbean islands and Florida were recovering from Hurricane Irma this summer, Maria came roaring through the region. With numerous fatalities and crippling damage to island infrastructure, the hurricane season of 2017 – which has not yet ended – has been historic in scope and effect. These storms have highlighted the unique challenges of providing seafarers’ welfare in the Caribbean. Those of us on the mainland often conceive of the region as a series of island paradises; the reality is more complex. Vacationers and expats accept the risks of foul weather to enjoy gorgeous landscapes, idyllic excursions, and a laidback way of life not found elsewhere. Yet outside of leisure opportunities and recreational areas, Caribbean societies face many of the same struggles as anywhere else. What is paradise to the visitor often contrasts sharply with the daily life of residents, and not everyone can simply book the next flight out if a hurricane is impending.

Last year, the North American Maritime Ministry Association, gathered representatives from across the region to discuss these challenges and contemplate new ways of thinking about the issues. As Captain Gerard Pannell, instructor at the STAR Center and seafarer with deep experience in the region, explained to the seminar participants, the region presents special challenges for the maritime industry. Seafarers must take extra care in this area. Not least among these are the circumstances islanders find themselves in now: it is more prone to weather-related danger than other parts of the world, as the El Faro tragedy reminded us in 2015.

One key, and challenging, characteristic of almost all present-day seafarers’ welfare organizations is their isolation from surrounding communities: whether among Caribbean islands or on the continent, ports simply are not part of the daily life of cities. Yet the situation of welfare providers in the Caribbean highlights how connected their continental counterparts really are. After natural disasters and other damaging events, welfare providers in the mainland United States, for example, can draw on local relief services, repair contractors, and provisions suppliers to return to operation relatively quickly. That often isn’t the case in the Caribbean, where such services likely have been just as affected as seafarers’ welfare. Furthermore, geographical distance also makes essential infrastructure all the more fragile on the islands, as Puerto Rico’s ongoing lack of electricity attests. Seafarers’ House in San Juan, for example, closed the Monday before Maria hit and announced it will remain so until further notice. The storm so heavily damaged the island’s power grid that it is still without power weeks after Maria hit. As of October 12, the official death toll from the storm stood at 45.

Many of these conditions were faced also by continental welfare providers during and after Harvey and Irma. Yet those centers enjoy an advantage that those in the Caribbean do not: the ability to bounce back quickly.

Seafarers’ House in San Juan is a major provider of seafarers’ welfare services in the Caribbean, seeing over 20,000 visitors in a region facing multiple challenges to effective caregiving for mariners. Extreme weather is just one of the obstacles faced by centers like Seafarers’ House, which is more closely connected to the mainland United States than many may think: trade with the United States is crucial to the Caribbean economy. Of course, the Caribbean islands rely heavily on cruise tourism, as well, and these ships require seafarers’ welfare services, too. In particular, the placement of chaplains on cruise ships for the duration of a voyage allows both passengers and crew access to these services in the event of weather-related emergencies that can alter or delay an itinerary. Doreen Badeaux, Secretary General of Apostleship of the Sea-USA and administrator of the AoS-USA cruise ship priest program, said these chaplains are essential when events like hurricanes disrupt a cruise. Crews necessarily take on a greater workload when voyages are unexpectedly extended and may have loved ones in affected areas; passengers may also be concerned about friends and family even while they have to figure out how the indefinite delays caused by natural disasters will impact their ability to return home and to work. In those instances cruise chaplains may find their hands much fuller than normal.

Yet Seafarers’ House in San Juan is still committed to service, even with no ships in port or crews to welcome. Lilliam Alvarado-Jurado, Assistant Director, told NAMMA that as soon as electricity was available the center would open to the public for Internet and other communication use. These plans are afoot even though her own home was destroyed in the storm. “Don't watch the news,” she said, referring to depictions of Puerto Rico as impossibly wounded. “We’ll come back. We'll be fine.”

Raymond Wong, a ship visitor in Jamaica, echos this resilience, but also the particular needs of seafarers’ welfare in the Caribbean. As an Apostleship of the Sea ship visitor, Wong has visited ships in Montego Bay, Falmouth, Ocho Rios, and Kingston for the last 9 years. He shared that he would truly appreciate help in the the work: “The problem is that people aren’t interested in being volunteers in Jamaica. Any individual I have approached has wanted to be compensated for this work and doesn’t see the reward in the work like me.” Wong retired from his bakery that made 15,000 meat pies a day and has committed himself fulltime to this apostolate as a volunteer. “I do it for the love of people. I am retired, and serving seafarers is very rewarding.”

North of the Caribbean, Bermuda also faces similar joys and challenges. NAMMA’s Executive Director, Dr. Jason Zuidema, travelled on the MV Oleander this summer to work with Bermuda Mariners’ Home to assist with strategic planning. His 48 hours aboard provided the world of seafarers’ welfare an incredibly useful perspective on what mariners experience travelling to that island and others like it. The Mariners’ Home has a long history of serving seafarers and the local community, and is interested in renewing is mission to meet the changing needs of seafarers. Zuidema was able to share encouragement and best practice advice from other organisations on the continent.

When most of us think of Caribbean seafaring, of course, our thoughts turn to cruising. The industry – and the seafarers who crew the enormous floating cities – has been hard hit by this summer’s series of major storms, especially in the financial costs incurred by delays in turnover and cancelled voyages. Fortunately, no passengers or crew have suffered injury as a result of the hurricanes, but there are other consequences to the major itinerary delays that the weather has imposed. In addition to the serious inconvenience posed to passengers unable to disembark or who have had to disembark at ports far from their departure point, seafarers have had to carry out far more extensive duties than usual. Cruise ships don’t run themselves, and caring for the comfort and safety of thousands of passengers on an extended itinerary takes an extraordinary amount of work. Yet those ships have not confined their efforts to their own passengers: several ships have begun assisting Puerto Rico as it recovers from Hurricane Maria, delivering supplies and evacuating residents.

The summer of 2017 was difficult for some and catastrophic for others. While millions of people around the Gulf and the Caribbean continue to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, our sector – seafarers’ welfare – has experienced the challenging hurricane season in a way both unique and revealing of just how fragile is our global shipping network. We, as consumers, and the tens of thousands of seafarers calling at North American and Caribbean ports are truly fortunate for the resilience and determination of seafarers’ welfare providers, who have persisted through the difficulties of 2017 and look forward always to serving mariners regardless of their own challenges.

Dr. Michael Skaggs is the Director of Programs for the North American Maritime Ministry Association. The North American Maritime Ministry Association counts as members many of the seafarers’ centers in Irma’s projected path and is monitoring their status closely. To learn how you can help seafarers’ centers damaged by Hurricane Maria, visit http://facebook.com/maritimeministry or www.namma.org.

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