Port chaplain on the Covid-19 frontline

I wonder how many of us realise that without seafarers the NHS wouldn’t have vital medical supplies and equipment, we wouldn’t have fuel, and supermarkets wouldn’t be able to stock much of the food they sell. Seafarers are very much on the Covid-19 frontline.

“If you’re a seafarer, you work on a ship for months at a time. But now you can’t get off it. People say it’s hard having to stay indoors and only go out once or twice a day. But seafarers can’t even do that. It’s very tough for them,” said Father John Lavers when I spoke to him recently. 

He’s the director of chaplaincy for the Catholic charity Stella, and is based in Southampton.   Before he became a priest he worked in intelligence for the Canadian government, specialising in combatting terrorism.

Because he is classified as a key worker, Father John is continuing to provide pastoral care and practical help seafarers through the covid-19 crisis.  

However, he’s not allowed on board ships. And the Stella Maris seafarers’ centre at St Bernard’s church in the city centre has temporarily closed.

He is providing packages made up of sim cards, woolly hats, chocolates, and spiritual reading matter, which he delivers to the bottom of a ship’s gangway and then notifies the seafarer on watch.

Before arriving in port, he has to speak to the port authorities to find out what the situation is and whether there are any cases on ships of seafarers who have been infected by covid-19. While in port, he has to wear latex gloves, a face mask, and carry hand sanitizer.

“Pastoral and spiritual work still happens, but it’s done in a different way.  I use social media to contact seafarers. And I’ll often get requests from seafarers for prayers or for a Mass to be offered for their families back home. Some seafarers have been participating in Mass online.

“There are ships in Southampton with cases of Covid-19 on board, and some ships are self isolating their crew.  If seafarers become worse, they’ll be taken to hospital.

“It’s tough for seafarers. I know of a number of seafarers who are in isolation on a ship. We are working with shipping companies to help them communicate with their families back home.”

There is still a lot of vessels coming in and out of Southampton, he added, but there are less cars pass being transported through the port, because car production is down.  “Many of the large car parks in Southampton are empty.”

There are currently four cruise ships anchored in Southampton and another three further along the coast in Dover. Father estimates there could be between 7,000 – 9,000 crew on board, many of whom are likely to be from the Philippines.

“All the passengers have been disembarked. Some of the crew have been repatriated to their own country, but not many. Some ships are completely virus free.  What is allowed on board is very heavily scrutinised.”

What’s most important for seafarers at this current time is to contact family and friends back home, explained Father John. Because of this, he has received more requests for sim cards. In some cases, ships are providing Wi-Fi for the crew. 

Around a third of the world’s seafarers come from the Philippines, with many others coming from  India and Eastern Europe.

“Seafaring life is generally very isolating. But when you know you have family back home that are fighting the virus. This is very stressful on seafarers They are so far away and can do nothing.

“In some cases, family or friends have died from the virus.  The seafarers feel helpless They can’t leave work. Sometimes they have to work longer than their established contract, because they can’t get home. 

“A seafarer on a nine-month contract is now being asked to work an additional three months. That’s a year. The mental impact on a person is massive. 

“You also have seafarers at home who can’t go to work to earn money for their family. If seafaring is your life and only means of income, it’s a very difficult.  And families back home get stressed when they hear a seafarer is in quarantine or in hospital. This is a very stressful time for seafarers.”