Why human interaction with seafarers matters now more than ever

As we emerge out of lockdown, a return to the simple acts of kindness delivered through routine ship visits is vital to ensure that seafarers’ concerns are not left undetected, writes Ian Stokes, Stella Maris’ head of corporate partnerships.

Like all the maritime industry, seafarers’ charity, Stella Maris, has contended with immense disruption during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Its global network of ship-visiting volunteers and chaplains, who provide welfare, support and advice to seafarers and fishers around the world every day, found their activities shifting dramatically to cater for the changing needs of those for whom they care throughout the year.

It is fair to reflect that the fear held by those ashore of seafarers bringing the disease into their countries was matched by the fear of the seafarers themselves of catching it when they came into a port.

This led to a significant reduction in Stella Maris’ ability to enter and visit ships and to provide assistance to those who required it, and to a cessation of shore leave for crews in most ports across the world.

But very quickly, the charity’s chaplains saw a huge increase in calls for assistance from seafarers with requests for help – and ship managers and insurers approaching us to help when bigger issues arose, such as to support crew following deaths, suicides or to help stranded crews.

So what was the cause of this sudden increase in demand for our services? Well, very quickly a pattern emerged: all those seafarers who contacted Stella Maris’ chaplains did so because they had experienced small acts of kindness and hospitality before the pandemic – and those acts of kindness gave seafarers the confidence and trust to contact them when the difficult times arose.

One Stella Maris volunteer in Northeast England helped seafarers purchase over 1,000 phone top-ups in just six months, while a chaplain in Scotland responded to a desperate plea for toothpaste after the whole crew were down to sharing one tube between them all.

The request of a captain of a vessel that regularly visited Felixstowe for a Big Mac Meal for each of his crew to help cheer them up was one of the most popular stories on our social media last year – as everyone recognised the very human impact a small gesture like that has on the morale of all.

These requests, the results of small acts of human interaction months before, highlight the value of ship visits that on the surface can appear to do little more than deliver a woolly hat or box of chocolates to the mess room.

But they also help trained chaplains and volunteers to recognise and support those suffering from stress, loneliness or grief, to give them the opportunity to experience that kindness and reassure them that reliable help is available – over time and distance.

A year later with still only limited access to vessels, Stella Maris is asking questions again: what is the impact on seafarers of the loss of such simple human interaction? What is happening that we are now unable to see?

For example, while the charity saw a jump in the number of welfare cases involving deaths, suicide and human trafficking and forced labour last year, we saw a decline in cases of bullying and lower-level mental health concerns that are picked up on those routine visits and can be fixed before they become a larger issue.

As we come out of these various lockdowns, we must therefore make sure that we are on the front foot and ready to support seafarers address the issues that have been bubbling away untreated in the background while our attention has been focused elsewhere – starting with the return of simple acts of human kindness delivered through a visit to a ship in port.

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