The Sailors Home and Mission to Seafarers has been serving seafarers in Hong Kong since 1863, first working from the original sailors home situated in western on Hong Kong Island.
The need for a place for seafarers to call ‘home’ in Hong Kong was establish due to the large number of sailing cargo vessels who would drop anchor at the western side of Hong Kong and after discharging their cargo would wait sometimes weeks or months for their next orders. The need for a home ashore for the officers and crew was developed to provide respite from the very meagre conditions aboard their ships.
Very soon those who ran the Sailors Home were on the search for someone to counsel and pastor the seafarers as they had many particular problems associated with being away from home for long periods of time. Not long after the establishment of the first Sailors Home, a chaplain was appointed to take up this special work and the first seafarers church was built in the grounds of the Sailors Home in western.
The church was dedicated to St Peter, who himself a fisherman, was thought an appropriate model and guide for all seafarers.
In the passage of time, and through the changes from sail to steam, the shipping focus of Hong Kong moved from western to a more central location of Victoria Harbour near Wan Chai and on the opposite side of the harbour to Whampoa and along to Tsim Sha Tsui. With those movements also came the development of a seafarers institute in Tsim Sha Tsui in 1895 and a wholesale relocation of the Sailors Home from Western to Wan Chai in the 1930’s.
In the late 1960’s with further development of the shipping towards the Kowloon side The Sailors Home and Mission to Seafarers moved to Tsim Sha Tsui, and additionally in 1975 built another centre in Kwai Chung in the then developing new container port.
Today the Sailors Home and Mission to Seafarers continues to serve seafarers calling in Hong Kong, and like in the past we have not stood still. Today the Mission to Seafarers works in collaboration with The Apostleship of the Sea, the Danish Seamen’s Church and the German’s Seamen’s Mission to serve all seafarers who visit Hong Kong.
The Home in Middle Road Tsim Sha Tsui, which was called The Mariners’ Club is now in the process of being redeveloped into a new Sailors Home which will be hopefully open to welcome seafarers from all over the world by the end of 2023. The new facility to be called ‘The Mariners” will still be in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui and will provide suitable modern accommodation for all seafarers needs and the ‘all importan’t welcome that visiting seafarers to Hong Kong have come to expect.
It is interesting to look back at those times over 150 years ago, to see how seafarers we treated and regarded by the majority of the inhabitants of Hong Kong and probably the rest of the world come to think about it. For the Sailors Home was a facility built to give space to seafarers on shore, so they didn’t mix with the general population. They were seen as unclean, unpleasant and not people to mix with. They were often thought of as vulgar and totally unreliable, who would spend their money on drink and fast women, and once “skint” would have to put back to sea again leaving the world behind them.
Of course, this was a massive over generalization, not all seafarers behaved in this way back in the day, but the concern was enough for those who cared, to appoint a chaplain who was tasked with leading them to a better way, to use Jesus Christ as the example of a way of living that provided hope and salvation and a just way of living for a group of sailors who had perhaps lost their way in life!
Today there is still the stigma attached to the seafaring profession, although truly the behaviour I have described, has not been around for as long as I have been working with seafarers over the last 22 years.
Today’s seafarers come mainly from the developing parts of the world, the Philippines, India, China, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Africa with a fair few coming from the Ukraine, Romania and other Baltic countries.
Their needs are often the same as ours, they wish to be put in contact with their families at home, perhaps they need to send money to wives or partners for a special family occasion, they need to get essential items such as toiletries or food snacks that they have run out of, or sometimes they just need to get off their ship for a break and talk to someone apart from their crew.
Unfortunately, in these times of Covid-19 pandemic the world has been turned on its head for all seafarers. The flights that seafarers relied upon to bring them to join their ship or to take them back home to their families are in very short supply. Also travel as we have known it, has become all but impossible due to quarantine and isolation rules. The impact that this had had on seafarers has been immense. At the start of the pandemic when everything was closing down in many countries seafarers continued to work. They were still expected to keep the ships sailing so that countries would not starve. Contracts on board ship had to be lengthened or in some cases doubled as flights home and repatriation through many countries were locked down. The normal 9 months on board ship now became 14 or even 18 months away from home. And in Hong Kong seafarers were stuck on their ships not allowed to come ashore as they are now seen as a possible threat of contamination or carriers of Covid-19.
It is quite funny in a way that in February 2020 seafarers were frightened coming to Hong Kong for fear that they might catch coronavirus from us, now Hong Kong is frightened that they might catch Covid-19 from visiting seafarers, who ironically have been at sea in some cases for many weeks without any other human contact.
As the world starts to come to grips with Vaccination and sees a way out of the pandemic, there still remains the issue of vaccinating the world’s 1.5 million seafarers who are essential for 90% of the world’s trade. Answers will have to be found in the ports around the world to help vaccinate this world-wide work force. And what of the future, will shore leave be allowed in Hong Kong without quarantine for the visiting seafarers or will their only experience be of looking out of a port hole at the promise of time ashore that might have been.
Yes, today seafarers are still being treated as they were over 150 years ago, unclean, possible bearers of disease and better if they stay on their ships not coming into contact with the people ashore.
The work of the Seafarers’ Missions is just as important today as it was all those years ago, connection and communication with seafarers, establishing what their needs are, and serving them as we would serve anyone who we call a friend as a basic human kindness. Doing so with love and compassion is a basic Christian commandment
This Sea Sunday please pray for all seafarers who are away from their families at this time, please pray for all who serve them in the seafarers missions around the world especially in this time of pandemic. For those offering hospitality at the gangway but still keeping a socially responsible distance from each other. Please also pray that the world will come back to normal where seafarers can come ashore again and be recognized as our fellow human brothers and sisters and treated with the same respect as we treat our own friends and families. To conclude I would like to read a poem written by a seafarer which may for some, give a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to be a seafarer
The Poem is entitled
WE ARE SEAFARERS
CHARLZ F. FONTAMILLAS,
We sailed the vast ocean through its high and low
Danced through ships motion from the stern to its bow
To provide goods and services to all consumers of the world
A seafarers sacrifice that to you is being unfold
Eat, work then sleep, the usual routine we do onboard
We sing, dance and laugh. The only happiness we can afford
Waiting for next port, taking chances to communicate with our family
With all the time, seeking guidance and protection from the Lord Almighty
When duty calls, we turn the day into night and the night into day
For how long? Nobody can say
We are on our own since we embark on day one
And hide the feeling of loneliness as much as we can
We eat what’s been cooked and no reason to be picky
We clean our cabin with no excuses for it to be messy
We washed our cloths after a hard day’s job
Self-medication with warm shower and ointments rub
Everyday is Monday with no chances of shore-leave for relaxation
Hoping for everything to be back to normal after vaccination
For even though we are expected to be with our family during vacation
Most of the days are wasted because of these quarantine and hotel isolation
Seafaring career has never been easy and it’s getting bad
If we have enough savings and investments, quitting will be glad
But reality check, these are not applicable to the majority
Because most can’t say no to the needs of the extended family
Life’s challenges come and go, with us stronger than before
Determined to finish the contract with our family and God in our core
The world is changing but we keep on sailing. Stand proud for them to see
We are the unsung heroes, back liners and brave warriors of the sea
We are SEAFARERS