The Reverend Garry Dodd is the Senior Chaplain for the Newcastle Mission to Seafarers (MTS).
He recently spent three weeks as a member of the bulk carrier, MV Ma Cho, traveling from Melbourne to Lae, Papua New Guinea.
Firstly I would like to express my deep appreciation to Mr. Christopher Rabbidge from Fenwick's Shipping, Fenwick's, Captain Ferdows, Newcastle MTS and my wife Paula, for making this life experience possible.
After experiencing the disappointment of two failed attempts to join a vessel, I knew that this would be my last opportunity for some time. So despite a delayed start and various issues, my now extended journey took me from Melbourne to Lae, PNG, transporting 18,000 tonne of wheat on the MV Ma Cho. As chaplain to the Mission to Seafarers in Newcastle, I wanted to experience something of a Seafarer's life in a bid to deepen my awareness and appreciation of what it is like to work, eat and sleep, 24/7 with 24 others, with no respite.
Whilst one vicariously learns much about the Seafarers world through conversations, ship visiting and being apart of the Maritime industry, I wanted to walk, or should I say swim, just one mile as a member of a vessel. I also thought it would be good to learn about myself in the process - do I get sea sick? How do I go eating rice three times a day, every day? Is there life with absolutely no mobile, SMS, Internet or carrier pigeon for three weeks? This was actually a serious question, what is it like to have no contact with family, not knowing if they were sick or in any need and not be in a position to help? These are just the beginning of a litany on issues Seafarers must face each day of a nine to twelve month contract at sea.
The vision of donning overalls and rubbing shoulders with the crew, as we worked all day chipping rust and painting the deck, came to fruition. The first two days in harbor were frantic as the crew had to race against time to adequately clean the hulls so that the wheat could be loaded. Australia has a high standard and the staff of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service know the importance of their task. If the vessel failed its inspection, it may have been forced back out to anchor to do the work at sea. I had fun scraping and sweeping and trying to help out. The crew thought I was either the ship's surveyor or one of the agents. When they found me onboard at sea - there was much confusion. Why would an Australian Chaplain want to work, without pay, on a vessel?
Vessels are busy workplaces with various shifts occurring around the clock. Consequently noise is kept to a minimum and people are often either working hard or resting. I asked a Seafarer what he did on his day off and he said "sleep and wash" (clothes). Despite sailing into the tropics, I was often cold and found myself thanking God for the dozens of people who knit beanies for our Seafarers. I just wished I had taken one of those, instead of my old thin beanie from home. Importantly though I came to understand how some crew members fight against loneliness and isolation, especially amongst crews with multiple races, speaking various languages.
One of my experiences highlighted just how dangerous vessels can be. One one occasion the roar of the engine had ceased; the engine had broken down and the staff were frantically trying to fix it. The high swell tossed us around like a cork, whilst down below men were using heavy machines to raise a massive part of the engine to work within it. I couldn't believe how skilled they were under such difficult conditions. I could hardly walk due to enormous waves, yet they were able to fix the engine, setting us back on course. It takes no imagination to see how perilous work can be whilst at sea.
By the way, I WAS seasick.
About 30 nautical miles off Brisbane, the swell was about seven meters, waves smashing across the deck as we relentlessly pounded through them. It was in this ordeal that I recognized the beauty of being a part of such a small community. Various people came to enquired after me, offering support and advice. I found it extremely humbling to have such a high level of genuine care. Many retired seafarers have told me how they have made life long friends after serving onboard with someone. I can understand why.
The greatest insight I came away with is experiencing imposed solitude. As an Anglican priest I know what it is like to go on a silent retreat to meditate and spend active time alone with God in conversation. The retreats, and level of silence, are voluntary and I can always sneak away to call my wife or respond to an email, if I ever felt like it. My time at sea has reinforced the need to offer places of hospitality for Seafarers. Warm friendly places of refuge where they can have a stranger look them in the eye and know they are valued and cared for. Clearly I have a love and passion for the Mission and have always known how Seafarers value us. I realize more substantially that it is not just the provision of a Seafarers centre that is important, but the level of interpersonal care that really counts.
Thankfully I have a team of volunteers who give up their time because they have an authentic desire to love our Seafaring family as they walk through our doors. What I have been reminded of is just how precious our friendliness is to someone who feels isolated or burdened with a problem that cannot be shared onboard. I have renewed vigor to increase our ship visitor team in a bid to offer the warmth and care that is often needed by those Seafarers who do not have the time to come ashore.
My 21 day adventure has reinforced much of what I have already learnt, has challenged some of my assumptions, highlighted issues I had not previously considered, given me new insights and knowledge as well has a deeper appreciation of life at sea - from the view of the Captain to the Ordinary Seafarer. Personally I have grown through the various encounters with the men who make up the Ma Cho. Their stories, time together sharing and being community together have irreversibly touched me. The agony of being silenced from my family was a further experience that I would not choose again. One can only guess how Seafarers with little or no contact survive the many months away from home.
As the Port of Newcastle continues to massively expand we will not just need to meet the physical needs of these Seafarers, but actively ensure we meet their psychological and spiritual needs with willing volunteers who understand what it is like to be emotionally empty and what a blessing it is to be filled by the love of a stranger, bidding them welcome (Matt 25).
Notes on the Port of Newcastle, Australia.
Newcastle is the largest exporter of coal in the world and is constantly expanding its operations.
Mr. Gary Webb, CEO of Newcastle Port Corporation has said that the port is expected to double in tonnage by 2017 (NPC February/ March 2013 bimonthly newspaper pg.3).
The MTS centre had 10,787 Seafarers through its doors last year, a 55% increase from 2011 and a 271% increase since 2009. As a result the entire building at 96 Hannell Street Wickham is about to be redesigned as a modern facility to cope with ever growing demand. Donations of money, time, mens clothing, beanies and magazines are always welcome.
Electronic donation can be made via: BSB: 062815 Acc: 28025883. Cheques made to the Newcastle Mission to Seafarers. POB 3 Wickham 2293. Donation of goods to: 96 Hannell Street, Wickham.
The centre operates from 10am to 10pm, seven days.
Volunteers are always welcomed.
Please phone 49615007 for further information.