Remembering our 'forgotten servants' at sea

(Photo: Mission to Seafarers)

Almost two million seafarers face danger every day to keep our global economy afloat. But are Christians doing enough to support our 'forgotten servants' who deliver more than 90 per cent of the goods we rely on?

The life of seafarers can be far from idyllic, with many international seafarers regularly completing long-term voyages which leave them isolated from friends, family and loved ones for up to nine months at a time.

One Christian mission agency that seeks to improve the lives of seafarers globally is the Mission to Seafarers (MtS). It runs 121 centres in ports around the world, and its people visited more than 43,000 ships during 2023, to support seafarers.

Steve Morgan, European director of MtS, worked on Tall Ships for many years and served in the Royal Navy before joining the charity. He spoke to me about the Mission's work and the experiences of seafarers in today's world.

How do you see the role of MtS, and is there a growing need for it?

We look after the spiritual and physical needs of seafarers. I was a seafarer myself and I've experienced the loneliness, the isolation, and the frustration of being at sea. It can be the best job in the world, but sometimes it can get you down.

The Mission is there to provide spiritual support and prayer, and practical help with shopping, communications home and so on. Sometimes simple things like buying a toothbrush can be a challenge. We are there for the little things that really matter.

There is, sadly, another side as well. We are seeing an increasing number of mental health and welfare issues. We deal with suicides and breakdowns, with the aftermath of accidents and sinkings.

Sometimes seafarers are not paid, they are not allowed off their ships, they can be abandoned and so many other things can go wrong. So, yes we are growing – there is a huge need out there.

Is the nature of seafaring – and seafarers - changing? For example, are there changes in the nationalities more likely to be seafarers, and are crews becoming smaller?

Yes to all three! The industry is changing rapidly in all sorts of ways. Ships spend less time in port, which has a significant impact on seafarers' welfare. Filipinos and Indians make up the bulk of the deck workers in the merchant fleet and they are a joy to get to know.

A very large number of officers are from Russia and Ukraine – often on the same ship. You might think that would be a problem, but it rarely seems to be. People are people at the end of the day.

What are the biggest challenges facing seafarers – and how is MtS helping to meet them?

Mental health and sadly suicide are increasingly coming to our attention. We have developed courses to train our chaplains and the wider industry in how to respond to this. Communication is always an issue at sea, and many seafarers have little or no access to the internet. We provide wifi and sim cards so they can contact home.

Is seafaring becoming more dangerous?

There are always accidents at sea, as sadly it's a dangerous environment. There are ways to mitigate this, but it will never be as safe as being on land. Piracy is on the increase – especially around Somalia and the Red Sea. Last December, the MV Ruen was hijacked, and the crew kidnapped for three months. They were rescued in March by the Indian Navy. Piracy was dropping off after peaking in 2011, but it is becoming a real problem again now.

Do you think most people – including Christians – think or pray enough about the role of seafarers?

No, we don't. We all rely on seafarers, as more than 90 per cent of our trade comes via the sea. That's all our iPhones, fridges, olives, petrol and so on. But no one ever really sees this in action as it is behind the wire in a port with security controls.

The decline of the Merchant Navy means that very few people in the UK know much about shipping. Seafarers are our forgotten servants.

I think Jesus would have noticed them and as Christians we are called to serve the marginalised and forgotten. I would love to see churches pray for them and support them.

Although the UK merchant fleet is much smaller than it once was, there is still a significant shipping industry in the UK, and we have some major world ports. For example, Felixstowe is the eighth busiest port in Europe and Southampton is the second largest cruise port behind Venice.

Increasing numbers of people, including Christians, are experiencing 'seafaring' by taking cruises – is there any advice you would give Christians about how they might support or engage with seafarers while on board?

Notice them, say thank you and strip your bed at the end of the cruise. Little things really matter.

Do many cruise ships have chaplains, and what does this role entail?

Yes, there are chaplains, we organise this area on behalf of a lot of cruise lines. The work varies depending on the ship and the passenger demographic, but ultimately chaplains are there to serve.

What can Christians do to support the role of the Mission?

Christians can pray for the Mission to Seafarers and talk about their work. Let people know that the mission exists. If people want to get involved, then there are branches across the UK that would love to welcome people to help.

If anyone has a heart for helping the marginalised, then they are right on our doorsteps in many parts of the country. It's great fun too – you get to meet people from so many different cultures and may get to go on some massive ships!

I believe the work of the Mission to Seafarers is the Gospel at the heart of the secular world. It is messy and unpredictable, but it is glorious to watch!

Christians are being encouraged to mark Sea Sunday, July 14th 2024, and join in prayers for seafarers. Sea Sunday, says the Mission to Seafarers, "is an opportunity for us to remember and say prayers for all the brave men and women who work at sea to make sure we have all that we need."

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK, and a former communications director with the CofE.