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Pandemic halted sea cruises, but many still working in maritime industry facing challenges


Davide Pischettola | NurPhoto | NurPhoto via AFP

John Burger - published on 07/11/20 - updated on 07/11/20

Sea Sunday reminds people to pray for those who ship goods around the world, and who are often forgotten.

When Pope Francis addressed the world from a virtually empty, rainy St. Peter’s Square in late March, he called up a maritime image to express what many people then were feeling in the midst of a growing pandemic.

“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm,” said the pope in his March 27 special prayer service for the world facing the threat of COVID-19. “We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat … are all of us.”

Perhaps no one can relate to these sentiments better than seafarers. The cruise, fishing and shipping industries, and the men and women whose livelihoods depend on them, have all been impacted by the worldwide health crisis.

Sea Sunday, celebrated on the second Sunday of July, is a day set aside to remember and pray in a special way for people who work at sea. Prayers offered this year on the celebration, July 12, come at a particularly needful time.

“These are difficult times for our world, for we have had to deal with the suffering caused by the coronavirus,” Pope Francis said in a recent video message to maritime personnel and their families. “Your work as maritime personnel and fishermen has thus become even more important, since it is providing our greater human family with food and other primary needs. For this, we are grateful to you. But also because we know the risks involved in your work.”

In a message for Sea Sunday, Cardinal Peter A. Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that ships are transporting “almost 90% of products that are badly needed to carry on our normal lives in these taxing circumstances such as medication and medical equipment.” And yet, he said, “estimates suggest that, every month, 100,000 seafarers who finish their contracts and look forward to flying home were prevented from doing so by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent closure of borders and flights. Accordingly, thousands of seafarers who were ready to leave for a new contract were stranded in hotels and dormitories around the globe, reduced to beggarly dependence on charitable institutions for their basic needs, such as foods, toiletries, SIM cards, etc.

“Because of the absence of shore leave, and restricted port entry for ships visiting,” Cardinal Turkson continued, “seafarers on board the vessels suffer isolation, severe physical and mental stress that brings many crews on the verge of desperation and, unfortunately, committing suicide.”

Doreen M. Badeaux, secretary general of the Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America (AOS-USA), an organization that provides pastoral care for maritime and port workers and offers priests to serve as chaplains on cruise ships, affirmed that the pandemic “has had an impact on the entire maritime community.” The cruise line industry was the focus of attention early on in the pandemic because certain ships that had docked in China or which had sick passengers aboard were not being allowed to call in other ports. Cruises were cancelled across the board.

Yet, there has been little attention paid to the plight of maritime workers, who still must maintain ships and sail on merchant vessels and fishing operations.  Many were unable to get home after their tours of duty. Foreign-born ship personnel were not allowed to go ashore in U.S. ports, due to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency rules. And many in the industry have been laid off.

A big challenge industry-wide is getting people home after they finish their stint. This becomes difficult when countries close their borders to their own citizens who are working in the maritime industry.

“When you think about it, they’ve got crew members from every country in the world on board these ships,” Badeaux said. “And every country in the world had a different stipulation for what you could or could not do. So like the Coast Guard is saying, if they want to go home the cruise line will have to fly charter flights to fly them home rather than just putting them on any old flight. Individual countries were saying, ‘Well, you can only come to our country if it’s a direct flight.’ So if you have seafarers who are coming from the U.S. and going to the Philippines, it had to be one direct flight. You had the country of Mauritius saying they could only fly here using a Mauritius airline.”

AOS-USA has been helping out in a number of ways. In Port Arthur, Texas, Badeaux, along with Fr. Sinclair Oubrre, the port chaplain for the Diocese of Beaumont, and associates from the ecumenical Port Arthur International Seafarers Center have been shopping for personnel on incoming ships.

“A lot of it was snacks for themselves,” said Badeaux, in an interview this past week. “What everyone does when there’s a hurricane or a pandemic, you go out and get comfort food. But there was also a lot of vitamins. A lot of things for their kids at home.”

Aside from the material comforts and necessities, AOS-USA has been active in ministering to maritime personnel’s spiritual needs. Holland America, one of the lines for which AOS-USA provides cruise chaplains, “asked if we’d be able to provide some kind of virtual pastoral care for the crew members who are on board, but also their crew members who are at home,” Badeaux said.

In response, AOS-USA is live-streaming Sunday Mass on the YouTube channel and Facebook Page of Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America. Each week, the Mass will be offered by a different priest from the list of 500 or so registered as Cruise Ship Chaplains. The Mass is specifically geared toward maritime personnel, with special intentions and perhaps a particular message woven into the homily.

“One of the things we remind them of before or after Mass is if they’re needing to talk to somebody, a little pastoral care, or if they have an issue where they need some counseling, or if they’re tired of just talking to the same people they see at home or on board, we say ‘We’ve got 500 priests waiting to talk to you,'” Badeaux said.

There are signs that the cruise industry is coming back, she noted. In Europe, for example, small river cruises have begun, something everyone in the industry is monitoring, “because everyone wants to see what works and how this can be done successfully and safely.” Some cruise lines have indicated plans to start sailing again between mid-September and December.

She said that AOS-USA offered to do fleet-wide blessings once the industry does get back on its feet. This can be reassuring for many seafarers, particularly those from certain cultures. “If there’s a death on board or just negative things on board or stress, they want the ship blessed before they go,” she said.

Recently a merchant ship arrived in Port Arthur carrying the body of a seaman who had committed suicide on board about a week earlier while at sea, she said. “Our port chaplain went on board at 2 in the morning, as soon as the ship got here,” she related. “The captain wanted the ship blessed; he wanted the gentleman blessed; he wanted to do a prayer service for the gentleman. One of the key things was to bless the room where the gentleman died, bless his bedroom and bless the room where the body was stored until the ship got here.

“If that’s not done,” she said, “they really don’t want to sail the ship.”

Knowing that, AOS-USA suggested to the cruise lines that fleet-wide blessings would be something that “would give a lot of comfort to the crew members going back to the ship, even though most of them didn’t have any deaths on board,” Badeaux said. “But all of them have had struggle and stress during this time, so to bless those ships would also be a very good sign to the crew members that this company cares; they understand what we’ve gone through.”

In the meantime, AOS-USA is encouraging people to share on social media that this is Sea Sunday, and to pray for seafarers this weekend.

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