By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
After months at sea, walking on land is not a simple thing, but a local nonprofit is helping sea workers adjust and reconnect with loved ones during their stopovers in Seattle.
Beneath the towering cranes along Elliott Bay and Duwamish River are merchant ships carrying cargo containers of electronics clothing, and other goods that fill store shelves and drive industries.
Aboard each ship are also dozens of hardworking men and women, known as seafarers, who operate the vessel, maintain its deck, or work as engineers and chefs while at sea. Seafarers are key players in facilitating international trade and helping the local economy thrive.
While a job at sea may sound alluring, seafaring is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Workers are exposed to harsh maritime conditions and the increasing risk of piracy in the open ocean. Seafarers also face the bittersweet reality of being apart from loved ones for months at a time, often missing out on holidays, birthdays, and other life events.
“Every day, I meet a seafarer who has a baby at home that he’s never met because he’s been away for months to a year. That’s how long their [employment] contracts are,” said Ken Hawkins, executive director of the Seattle chapter of the Mission to Seafarers.
But a nonprofit organization is helping seafarers feel at home while their ships are in port. The Mission to Seafarers operates the Seattle Seafarers’ Center, a modest wooden building below the West Seattle Bridge, where seafarers can enjoy free amenities like high-speed Internet, phones, a full kitchen, a pool table, and a small chapel. It’s a place for seafarers to rest, touch base with loved ones back home, and simply hang out before going back to work on the high seas.
“All seafarers are welcomed, regardless of rank, ethnicity, or religion,” said Hawkins.
The organization serves seafarers from about 90 different countries, and Hawkins said that most of them come from Asia.
“More than half of the merchant seafarers that we serve are natives of countries like China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia,” said Hawkins. He wants to give all seafarers a warm welcome.
“Seafaring is one of the oldest professions, and seas are the oldest international highway. There’s a wonderful sense of community and tremendous opportunity to get involved in the lives of people from all over the world,” said Hawkins. “That ability to serve and interact with people who are just like us — dads, moms, husbands, wives — creating that sense of community and sharing has been an important part of my life,” he said.
Throughout the year, workers and volunteers for the Mission to Seafarers greet every merchant vessel that docks at the Port of Seattle. Ship visitors walk onto the vessels and bring on board Wi-Fi routers, cell phone SIM cards, phone cards, and other supplies to help seafarers reconnect with family and friends. Drivers also provide shuttle rides to the Seattle Seafarers’ Center for those who are allowed off the ship, and offer to run errands for those who must stay on board.
“There are a lot of crews who cannot step on shore because the shipping company does not get a visa for them,” said driver and ship visitor Thomas Kuk. “For those who can’t get off board, I go on board and try to help them. They will make a shopping list for what they need, usually groceries, and I shop for them and bring [the items] back to the ship,” said Kuk.
Kuk has worked for the Mission to Seafarers for 10 years, and his job takes on personal meaning. His father was seafarer for six years, and his father-in-law was a seafarer for 50 years.
“My late father-in-law was a chief cook, traveling around Asia,” said Kuk. “He was on board from the age of 20 until he was 70 years old. So far, I haven’t met anybody who has broken his record.”
Kuk said he is happy to repay the favor of his fathers to today’s seafaring community.
“I wanted to contribute a little bit of my life,” he said. “I am really proud of taking care of the seafarers,” he said.
In addition to merchant ship workers, the Mission to Seafarers assists thousands of cruise ship employees who arrive at Pier 91 each summer. The employees only have a few hours in port each week, and the organization shuttles them around town to shop, sightsee, and run errands.
“Most of the seafarers support their extended families,” said Hawkins. “They’re constantly mailing stuff and wiring money home. Access to a city center like ours where they can shop is pretty important for them.”
Although many seafarers feel relieved to arrive into port, many have a hard time adjusting to American culture. Workers like Kuk, who is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, help bridge language and cultural gaps.
“I think speaking to them in their language makes them feel welcome,” said Kuk.
There was a recent experience that will forever stick in Kuk’s mind. A young Filipino father who worked on a container ship stopped by the Seattle Seafarers’ Center after spending six months at sea. The seafarer logged onto Skype and was able to meet his baby for the very first time.
“He was calling home,” recalled Kuk. “The baby cannot talk, so the seafarer was just saying, ‘Ah, ah, ah!’ I asked, ‘Who are you talking to?’ And he said, ‘Oh, my baby son!’ He was so happy to hear his voice.”
Kuk said the seafarer felt recharged after meeting his baby.
“He told me, ‘Oh, I’m all charged up! Good, good, good!’”
The Seattle Seafarers’ Center is one of more than 200 centers operated by the Mission to Seafarers around the world. The organization is always looking for volunteers, especially those who speak other languages.
“We’ve touched tens of thousands of seafarers, each with their own individual stories,” said Hawkins. “We’re trying to help the port community to see the humanity of seafarers.”
“It feels really good to look at their faces and see that they’re very happy,” said Kuk. “I think they really need to be cared for and looked after.” (end)
To learn more about the Mission to Seafarers, visit http://mts-seattle.org.