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25/06/2020 01:46 PM

Sending a lifeline to seafarers: the unsung heroes of the sea

Living in lockdown is a way of life for the 1.6 million people working at sea, but seafarers visiting the ports of NSW are being thrown a lifeline to help with the devastating impacts of isolation.

Our way of life wouldn’t be possible without seafarers. Every day, they arrive in our ports to bring us the goods we depend on and take our valuable exports overseas.   

Hidden from view on their hulking vessels, they receive little recognition for their contributions to our lives and little reward for months living and working in isolation at sea.

Image: the isolation of working at sea can have a severe impact on seafarers' wellbeing

“A lot of the crews do ten-months straight onboard in harsh work and living conditions, away from their families and with limited communication,” says Michael Kelly, Port Authority Marine Pilot in Sydney and advocate of seafarer welfare. “They can spend most of that time working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. It takes a special kind of person to do that job.”

But for many seafarers, that job can take a heavy toll.

Facing issues ranging from loneliness and isolation, to instances of abuse, wage issues and job insecurity, seafarers are disproportionately affected by dangerous levels of depression, anxiety and stress. A 2019 study by Yale University into seafarer mental health found that 20 per cent of seafarers have contemplated suicide or self-harm.

Supporting seafarer welfare in NSW

After months at sea, arriving in port gives seafarers a rare opportunity to reconnect with the world, and marine pilots like Michael are often the first people they meet.

Seeing the issues first hand, teams from Port Authority work with a network of maritime welfare organisations like Apostleship of The Sea and Mission to Seafarers to coordinate much-needed support services for seafarers visiting the ports of NSW.

“When seafarers visit our ports, we want to make it a home from home for them as much as possible,” says Michael.

“We work with these organisations to welcome them in, deliver essential goods, provide information about local services and help with trips to shopping centres and Mission to Seafarers welfare centres — simple things can make a huge difference to their welfare.”

Image: Sister Mary boarding a container vessel at Port Botany to check on crew members 

Sister Mary Leahy OAM is also a familiar face to crews visiting the ports. Regional coordinator for the Apostleship of the Sea, she’s been visiting ships to offer support to seafarers for over 25 years.

“The mental health issue is huge for seafarers,” says Sister Mary. “They work like machines in the engine room, and often humanity is lost. Our efforts are to regain the humanity here at the port.”

The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis

Now, with international shipping in the grip of the COVID-19 crisis, seafarers are on the frontline. It’s thought up to 200,000 seafarers are trapped on vessels around the world as a result of measures to contain the virus and are at major risk of mental and physical exhaustion.

Image: seafarers working in the engine room of a container ship at Port Botany

“Some of the seafarers (visiting NSW) have been at sea for nearly one year — maybe three months over their contracts,” says Michael. “And when they come into port, they’re not allowed off the ship. They’re stuck on board and they don’t know when they’re going to go home.”

As part of Sydney’s Port Welfare Committee, Michael now contacts the ships before they come in to see what they need. “Normally they can go to the shops but as they can’t, we’re doing it for them,” he says. “We’ll take the gift packs to the ships… and their faces light up.”

Sister Mary, unable to visit crews onboard, is working tirelessly to meet the needs of seafarers impacted by the COVID crisis. Her recent appeal calling for essential items for care packages has seen a flood of donations from across the country.

“The care packages might be a small thing but it’s something that lets them know they are cared for and thought of,” she says.

Image: Seafarers talk with Sister Mary on a vessel at Port Botany in February

In April, Mission to Seafarers, port stakeholders and the Illawarra community showed an outpouring of support for crew members in Port Kembla affected by the pandemic, while in May there was a deafening show of support for seafarers for International Worker’s Day as vessels across NSW sounded their horns simultaneously.

In Sydney, Newcastle and Port Kembla, the Tas Bull Seafarers Foundation recently launched an Australian-first initiative that provides free portable WIFI to ships in port to make it easier for seafarers to contact loved ones back home.

“There’s a radical reorientation towards the welfare of seafarers,” says Sister Mary. “It’s so good to be a part of this. It gives me great hope.”

Calling for change

On 25 June, the UN pays tribute to seafarers and raises awareness of the issues they face on the annual Day of the Seafarer. This year, the campaign calls on UN member states to recognise seafarers as key workers and to provide them with the support, assistance and travel options open to all key workers during the pandemic. 

The International Maritime Organization Secretary-General, Kitack Lim states: “Just like other key workers, seafarers are on the front line in this global fight. They deserve our thanks. But they also need — and deserve — quick and decisive humanitarian action from governments everywhere, not just during the pandemic, but at all times.”

From the international stage to our local communities, we all owe something to the work of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers — the unsung heroes of the sea.

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