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Chaplaincy Intern, The Mission to Seafarers (Hong Kong)

James Grimwood (2015, Music)

This summer, I was fortunate enough to spend seven wonderful weeks in Hong Kong working with The Mission to Seafarers, an Anglican charity. The Mission’s chaplains – all around the world – seek to provide support of all kinds to seafarers through ship visits. In Hong Kong, in addition to ship visiting, there are two Sailors’ Homes, both called The Mariners’ Club: one in East Tsim Sha Tsui, where seafarers can eat and stay, and another smaller building in Kwai Chung next to the container terminal. Most mornings, I went out on our launch, ‘Dayspring’, to visit the ships anchored in Victoria Harbour and further out in the South China Sea. Together with one other member of staff – often Captain Ben Yu – I delivered newspapers in the languages of the crew, sold telephone cards so that families could be contacted and provided counsel to those who desired it.

It was interesting to see how varied the living conditions of the ships were and, correspondingly, how the happiness of each ship varied enormously. Yet it was very disheartening to visit a few ships where the officers informed us the crew had not been paid in months and requested we report on their behalf to the authorities: often in these cases we were the only middleman the officers felt they could trust without risking their future employment with the company. On Wednesdays, I would visit ships in the container terminal in Kwai Chung with Justin, the Assistant Chaplain. Here the crew were often waiting for departure so had more time to talk to us. Sometimes, we found crews chatting freely with their captain in the Crew Mess, joking around and enjoying each other’s company. Other times, everybody seemed extremely busy and preoccupied. Either way, I cannot begin to remember the number of times I was asked about Brexit by seafarers!

I found many of the Filipino crews to be particularly friendly. Once, when visiting with Father Valan – the Catholic Chaplain – a crew told us that their youngest member, who was merely a teenager, was exceptionally bright. In my foolishness, I had not expected a seafarer to have ambitions to attend Law School and become a barrister. It was quite clear to both of us that he was intellectually curious yet very shy. The highest qualified officers on the ship are very good engineers: in fact, they should be able to dismantle the entire ship and reassemble its parts correctly. Our legally-minded friend impressed Father Valan, who told me once we got back on the launch that he hoped to sponsor him.

James Grimwood and Vr Valan

(l-r) Father Valan, crew member, James Grimwood

It became clear to me how much the seafarers valued the telephone cards I was selling. At first, it seemed like a very strange form of chaplaincy: sitting at the table in the Crew Mess waiting for seafarers to finish their shifts so that they could consider our cards. I would, time and again, explain how to activate the cards and which cards were better for each customer’s needs. And yet, I soon learned how vital they were. These cards, which we take for granted in the UK, are often the only way a seafarer can communicate with his or her family. Seafarers often wish to contact their families to make sure that the money they send home arrives safely. Of course, most use the cards to log onto social media and contact their family online and via video applications like Skype.

Ten-month contracts are common for many seafarers and it was clear from my many discussions how much they missed their loved ones. One man missed the birth of his son and had to wait over half a year before he could see him. He was clearly emotionally ambivalent, feeling both overjoyed at his birth and sad that he was not present. At that moment, I was able to offer him a sympathetic ear and it was great to see a photo of his smiling family – with its newest addition – on his phone. I came to realise how demanding the life of a seafarer is and what burdens it brings. The long shifts miles away from their families in often unpleasant conditions – particularly for those working in the engine room – mean that some can feel isolated. Consequently, most ships we visited invited us on board and were keen to speak to us, often offering us lunch. Many Catholics asked for devotional materials and quite regularly, the Crew Mess would be decorated with our own ‘Mission to Seafarers’ stickers next to those of Christ and Mary.

James Grimwood climbing a ship's pilot ladder

James Grimwood climbing a ship's pilot ladder

The placement was challenging for me physically. Climbing ladders up to the ships was, at first, challenging, given I am not naturally particularly athletic, and some ladder types were much harder to climb than others. I became quite proficient towards the end of my placement: I had to make sure to land on the ladder high enough from the launch otherwise, particularly when the very fast currents were rampant, there was a danger that my legs would be caught. At least once a week, Captain Ben and I visited Yiu Lian Dockyards where the challenges included climbing up on rubber rings to get onto a ship. In the container terminal, the ladders were very stable but extremely long given that many boats were without heavy cargo. I always wore protective gloves, not least because oil was extremely prevalent on the ladders. In the end, all my agility was worth the effort!   

The Typhoon meant that we could not go out on the launch and it was amazing to see just how prepared Hong Kong was for this kind of weather. I always kept an eye on the Hong Kong Observatory website for weather warnings: any of the rain alerts would usually mean no climbing because water and oil make for hazardous conditions. In these situations – as well as when the officer on duty did not want us to come on board – Captain Ben would call up asking for the nationalities on board so that we could select the correct newspapers. They would then drop a rope down to us so that we could send the papers up in a bag. It was remarkable to see him shout the telephone card information to the seafarers far above us in very stormy conditions. In ‘black rain’, attempting to visit ships was foolish and we had no choice but to stay at the Club.

The launch after the typhoon

The launch after the typhoon

When not visiting ships, I might visit seafarers in hospital, help in the office (particularly in planning which ships to visit on the database), explore Hong Kong, or play the organ. During my internship, Trinity College Choir and the Choir of King’s College both stayed at The Mariners’ Club whilst on tour – it was very good to catch up with some Cambridge friends! Though now firmly back on terra firma, I imagine my former colleagues 6,000 miles away caring ‘for those in peril on the sea’. I would like to thank The Revd Canon Stephen Miller and his team at The Mariners’ Club for being so kind, generous and welcoming. If you are interested to see a video of what my role entailed, ‘One young adult...and a mission to seafarers’ on YouTube shows one of my predecessors in Hong Kong. I very much enjoyed the placement and I am very grateful indeed to the THA for allowing me to take up this wonderful opportunity.

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