Social isolation on the High Seas: Stella Maris steps in

11 Jun 2020

By Eric Leslie Martin

Filipino men make up the majority of seafarers and there is strong likelihood that there will be a Catholic presence on board. Photo: Eric Martin.

By Eric Martin

Some three months of social distancing under COVID-19 restrictions has given most Australians an idea of the stress associated with separation from friends and family for any extended period of time – stretch that isolation distance to thousands of nautical miles, sometimes lasting years in duration, and the plight of many seafarers comes close to comprehension.

Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre in Fremantle has recently received funding to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic, enabling the Archdiocesan agency to extend an even greater level of hospitality to those international sailors washed up on Perth’s shores.

Loaded up with a box of gift-bags, Dcn Moore navigates the hazards of a busy port to deliver his cargo shipside. Photo: Eric Martin.

For Permanent Deacon Patrick Moore and his Stella Maris volunteers, the vulnerability to mental health issues exhibited by seafarers provides a “raison d’être” that exemplifies the Catholic ethos of charity.

Stella Maris’ volunteers have been putting together gift-bags for seafarers, 22 for each ship.

“Every person gets a selection of items: one soap, one razor, two Mentos, a tin of sardines [a delicacy for many seafarers], some dry snacks, noodles, and an Australian fridge magnet,” Dcn Moore explained.

Filipino men make up the majority of seafarers and there is strong likelihood that there will be a Catholic presence on board. Photo: Eric Martin.

And while the list of goods included may not sound that appealing to Australians, for men from the Philippines, who make up the majority of the modern merchant navy, the selection is a genuine treat.

“These bags are a way for us to show our care and consideration for these people who are so essential to our society; many people don’t realise that their whitegoods or the beautiful cars that they’ve bought – a seafarer had to scramble underneath that loading it in, chaining it up to be lifted out… everything.”

Stella Maris offers on-shore recreational facilities for seafarers to use during their short stay in Port Fremantle. Photo: Eric Martin.

“There’s a lot of suicide on board ships, a lot of people just disappear – over the side in the middle of the night,” Dcn Moore shared, before going on to relate the story of two young men, both 19 years old, who committed suicide on ships off WA’s coast in December.

“Sometimes they haven’t been paid for months, they [the ships] can even leave port without water.”

Yet the sailors are reluctant to talk about sub-standard conditions because they live in fear for their jobs, making Stella Maris one of the few places where they can be open and honest about their experiences and thankfully, Dcn Moore says Australia has a reputation for being strict.

Deacon Patrick Moore, Director of Stella Maris, with his wife, Carol and volunteer Marianne, from Palmyra Parish, with the gift bags being assembled for seafarers. Photo: Eric Martin.

“For years’ people had this idea about seafarers, that they were very naughty when they came off ship – but that’s just not the case anymore,” Dcn Moore said.

The crew’s quarters situated at the stern of the ship is the only home these seafarers know for many months at a time. Photo: Eric Martin.

“They’re nearly all family men, they’ve been at sea for months and they just want to talk to their families; in many cases their babies have been born while they are away at sea.”

Stella Maris and its volunteers, situated as they are at the edge of Port Fremantle, have been at the epicenter of WA’s coronavirus outbreak, dealing with the (healthy) captains and crew members of some of the ships that have been responsible for the majority of the State’s infected.

Stella Maris Seafarer’s Centre, as seen by the ships when they enter Port Fremantle. Photo: Eric Martin.

Dcn Moore points out the Al Kuwait as he drives towards one of the other waiting ships – the vessel captured local headlines after the Federal Department of Agriculture refused to grant an exemption to Australia’s live export ban to allow the vessel to transport 56,000 sheep to the Middle East when several crew members tested positive to COVID-19 after arriving in Fremantle on 22 May.

“Donning the mandatory facemask, we make our way out to a rusty green ship, its discolored bulk moored fast to the pier as a giant crane slowly lifts out her cargo, the crew calling out instructions in their native language of Tagalog.

Dcn Moore and the team at Stella Maris often receive thank-you letters from ships’ crews in appreciation for their support and hospitality. Photo: Eric Martin.

“This ship comes regularly, it’s a bulk carrier that usually stays here for up to a week and a half at a time – it’s last port was Kaohsiung City, a massive port in Taiwan,” Dcn Moore shared, nearing the gangplank where two men wearing bright-yellow wet weather gear stare at us suspiciously.

Yet once it becomes clear that the box of gift-bags is both for the sailors and free, the expressions change dramatically and wide smiles light up faces darkened by the kiss of the ocean sun.

Cries of “Thank you, thank you!” echo down from the decks above.