Seafarer centers across North America are liaising between ships and government clinics in order to provide seafarers with access to vaccines against COVID-19. It’s been a long time coming. Michelle DePooter-Francis, lead chaplain of Ministry to Seafarers (M2S) Montreal, had to answer ‘no’ to repeated questions about vaccine availability until recently. “Some of the first seafarers we helped vaccinate in Montreal had huge smiles after it was done. They were so happy,” she said.
DePooter-Francis was on the vaccination committee of Canada Seafarers Welfare Board that met weekly throughout the spring of 2021, but the first opportunity to help concretely happened because crew members shared their personal experiences.
In early July some crew members entered a Montreal walk-in clinic and received a shot without proof of residency. They told the Ministry to Seafarers, and M2S immediately alerted other ships to the possibility and began transporting seafarers to and from the clinic. “After a couple of weeks of doing this unofficially, I received a call from the head nurse of the clinic and from the person from public health in charge of the Montreal vaccination campaign giving us their support and formalizing the process,” said DePooter-Francis. The clinic now offers mobile clinics at the port. As of early September, M2M had assisted the crews of 33 ships in accessing vaccines—some of them for the two requisite shots, several weeks apart.
What does it take to make this happen? “A lot of communication!” said DePooter-Francis, including by email, phone apps, and in-person visits with agents, captains, and seafarers. It's all coordinated by the M2S staff, a small team of two chaplains, an administrator, and volunteers and interns.
Caring for Mental Wellbeing
In Canada’s largest port, Christian Reformed pastor Gary Roosma, working with Ministry to Seafarers, Vancouver, has shown care by advocating for ship crews’ shore leave. Before the B.C. government set up harbor clinics, crew members wanting to be vaccinated had further to go. “Initially it was just, you have to bring the seafarers to our clinics,” Roosma said. Without shore leave—or with only a few hours in a port—a trip to a downtown clinic wasn’t feasible. And leave is crucial for other reasons.
In a July 2020 story for The Banner, Depooter-Francis spoke of the mental toll isolation has on seafarers. That’s still a concern, Roosma said. This summer he was onboard a ship when a seafarer “had a complete mental breakdown. We had to do intervention. He hadn’t been off the ship in nine months and hadn’t slept in three days.” He was finally given shore leave, and Roosma kept in touch. “He’s back home and doing much better,” Roosma said. Roosma is moved by how seafarers describe their resolve. “The seafarers say, ‘I have to steel myself to be on board this ship and not get off for months.’ That’s hard.”
According to the Maritime Labour Convention, an international agreement that Canada has signed governing rights of those who work at sea, seafarers cannot be kept on board for more than 11 months. That restriction was set aside with the onset of COVID, but chaplains such as Roosma can now refer to it as they petition for shore leave on behalf of seafarers struggling with mental health.
‘Passing on God’s Love’
Port Alberni, B.C., is a logging port that has seen fewer ships as the industry declines. Matthew Gregory, a member of Alberni Valley Christian Reformed Church and volunteer with the Upper Room Seafarers’ Center, estimates only 20 ships this year. The group canceled the lease on their center during the pandemic but continue to connect with seafarers via their Facebook page and onboard ships. They, too, provide transport to clinics. “Ship owners, management companies, agents and crews, and seafarers’ welfare organizations, are all working as well as they can to get their crews vaccinated and relieved from duty and sent home in a timely fashion,” Gregory said.
DePooter-Francis, citing statistics from the Global Maritime Forum crew change indicator, said as of early September, 22% of seafarers worldwide had been vaccinated. “It's a start, but there's a long way to go.”
Seafarer ministries continue to offer other services—connecting with shipbound seafarers by doing their shopping, even for special requests. “A Vietnamese crew bought 45 lbs of freshly caught sockeye salmon that I bought from our local fishmonger,” said Gregory. “The next day, the second officer came down the ramp with his cellphone pictures; he had to show me that the cook turned a couple of the fish into sashimi and sushi with rice and fresh veggies.”
Gregory says, “They ask me on occasion, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘Just passing on God’s love for you,’ is my standard reply. They tell me that they never get this much comfort from any other port in the world. They are special in God’s eyes and our eyes as well.”
Christian Reformed congregations also support ministries to seafarers at several U.S. ports, including the Seafarers Mission in the Port of Palm Beach, Fla., which was started by chaplain John Van Hemert in 2001. He is still active in that mission, during the fall and winter, and in the spring and summer he is a volunteer chaplain with the port in Cherry Point, Wash.