When their ships come in
PUBLISHED: 09:57 07 July 2015 | UPDATED: 09:57 07 July 2015
Sister Marian Davies is the east coast’s sea chaplain, looking after the spiritual welfare of hundreds of seafarers every week. John Cassidy went to Felixstowe, Britain’s largest and busiest container port, to see her in action
July 12 this year is Sea Sunday, when the focus throughout the world is on the crews of container and cargo ships who bring 95% of everything we use or consume in our everyday life to our ports.
Look around wherever you’re reading this – your home, the café, the hairdressers, or the doctor’s waiting room. It’s likely that most items within your gaze – even down to the light switches – will have arrived by sea. It’s easy to forget the seafarers, the men and women who helped get all these things to us and spend most of every year away from home and family.
Someone who never forgets them is sea chaplain Sister Marian Davies, who covers the ports of Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex.
At the Port of Felixstowe, kitted out in her white hard hat, hi vis jacket and casual trousers, Sister Marian seems fathoms away from your typical nun in the pew. She is the only religious sister doing this job in Britain and one of three in Europe.
“Call me Marian,” she says. Her beaming smile and jolly disposition immediately put me at ease.
“We’ll have a spot of lunch later on, but let’s get to work first,” she says, handing me a hard hat. As we drive along the dockside, she talks about the life of the seafarer.
“Today’s seafarer is often only in port for a few hours, due to the quick turnaround of modern ships. They can’t come to me any more, so I go to them. No point just sitting in an office.” The human challenges of modern seafaring, it seems, are considerable. To maximise profits seafarers are recruited from the poorest countries. Conditions can be harsh and regimes can be strict. Bullying arising from cross cultural tensions – there are 40 different nationalities involved – is not uncommon. Life at sea is hazardous. Marian recalled a fatal accident at Felixstowe when a Filipino seafarer became caught in machinery. She was called urgently to console and counsel the distraught shipmates.
We arrive at ‘our ship’ and I stare open-mouthed at the size of it, a quarter of a mile long and the height of a four-storey building.
“Follow me,” Marian says, striding up the gangway, leaving me several steps behind. I step gingerly on deck, glancing nervously at the gigantic cranes scooping up the ship’s hundreds of coloured containers, and try to keep up with this sprightly nun, just the other side of 60. She seems perfectly at home in this largely male environment (only 4% of seafarers are women).
Within minutes, Marian, with her easy manner, soft Irish accent and gentle banter, negotiates us past a frosty first officer and smooths our way to meet some of the crew.
“Be careful,” she warns, “on board ship you are ten times more likely to have an accident.” And she’s off, down several little dimly lit stairwells and along a warren of narrow passages to the ship’s mess, where five of the crew – a Croatian, an Indian, a Ukrainian and two Filipinos – are having lunch.
They look jaded, but smile broadly when they see Marian’s chaplain name tag and shake her hand energetically. For the next half an hour there’s chit-chat, laughter, and a tear or two as one crew member tells her that he has not seen his new daughter. This doesn’t surprise Marian, as the normal contract is at least six months away from home.
With a little arm twisting, the Captain issues a special pass for the seaman, and at the end of his shift Marian is waiting to drive him to the seafarers’ centre, where she has organised a Skype call to his wife and new baby.
”Communication with home is the single most important thing for them,” she says and always carries sim cards, phone cards and helps with wi-fi access.
“These are small gestures but they do make a difference,” she says. Marian regularly ferries off-duty seafarers to Felixstowe or Ipswich to buy essentials for themselves, or little presents for their family with their meagre wages. Taxis are not allowed along the dock and walking is strictly forbidden. Her car often becomes a counselling room.
“I’m amazed at the level of trust. They seem to find it easy to confide in me, perhaps because I’m a woman – they can admit to me rather than their shipmates, that they’re anxious and afraid sometimes. They worry about their children, about their relationship, their own health, and a lot about money – will they be able to earn enough to feed their extended families and pay medical bills?”
How does she cope with more than 50 ships arriving into Felixstowe every week and all the other ports on her patch?
“I have a few wonderful volunteers,” she says. One of them, David Offord, worked as a postmaster in Kesgrave for 30 years. On his weekly ship visits, he takes toiletries, and downloads news sheets from a myriad of different countries to give the seafarers news from their homelands.
Marian also has an army of knitters, and the seafarers are delighted to get neck warmers and woolly hats.
Marian is directed and supported in her work by the Apostleship of the Sea, which operates in 250 ports around the world and is universally known as Stella Maris (Star of the Sea). It’s a Catholic organisation, reliant entirely on voluntary contributions, but its mission is to all seafarers regardless of their religion.
Back at the dockside Marian is tapping into her smart phone to discover when the next ship is arriving in Harwich. She looks at her watch.
“Goodness, look at the time,” she says. “I forgot about your lunch. That’s my major fault – I let time run away with me.”
For the seafarers who need her, this is not a fault, but a huge bonus.