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Safe in the harbour

Sailors from around the world ply their trade in Halifax. And when they need help, Mission to Seafarers is here for them

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Whittingham-Lamont checks in with Chief Engineer Liu Dongliang aboard Zim Shanghai. Photo: Steve Jess

Whittingham-Lamont checks in with Chief Engineer Liu Dongliang aboard Zim Shanghai. Photo: Steve Jess

Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published in the Halifax Magazine December 2013 issue.

The funny thing is, Maggie Whittingham-Lamont hates shopping. “But I’ve shopped everywhere for the crews,” she laughs, “in the malls, Wal-Mart, the Farmers’ Market. I’ve spent over $1,000 in the Superstore—just on vitamins. And of course, Victoria’s Secret…. I was actually blacklisted there because I’d bought so much at one time they thought I was re-selling the items. Then there’s the food staples for the galley crew. ‘Ma’am, they say, we need garlic. Can you bring us 15 pounds?’ Or fish. I’ve bought $1,800 worth of lobster at times. Another year, I bought a whole frozen pig the guys were going to cook in a homemade barbecue made out of an oil drum.”

Whittingham-Lamont is the seafarer coordinator at the Halifax Mission to Seafarers, a Canadian charity that is part of a worldwide network of 250 Anglican-sponsored missions. She and Helen Glenn, the manager, are sharing stories about their work at the centre, which last year saw 8,004 visitors come through its doors. “It’s absolutely different every day,” agrees Glenn. “Nothing ever goes quite as planned.”

It’s easy to drive by the modest blue and white building on Marginal Road, opposite Pier 21, and never guess its function. In fact, its purpose is a vital and time-honoured one, of providing service, aid and caring to the men and women who work and travel on the high seas.

“Most of the vessels are international,” says Whittingham-Lamont, who has worked at the mission for 22 years. “Container, cruise and sailing ships, oil tankers, car carriers, private yachts, research and fishing vessels—it’s a busy waterfront. Twenty-four/seven, every day of the year.” She shakes her head. “Yet some people don’t even realize we’re a port city, let alone that 95 per cent of what we use—oil, gas, cars, clothes, televisions and food—comes in on ships.” While Whittingham-Lamont’s job focus is ship visits, Glenn and some of the volunteers at the mission also visit with the captains, officers and crew on board the many different vessels.

Chief Officer Cheng Houdi aboard Zim Shanghai in Halifax. Photo: Steve Jess

Chief Officer Cheng Houdi aboard Zim Shanghai in Halifax. Photo: Steve Jess

“I ask them, ‘Would you like to go to the Mission or do some shopping or sightseeing?’” says Glenn. The opportunity to go ashore is irresistible to seafarers who have been at sea for weeks, even months. Once at the Mission—or the Seamen’s Club, as it is more casually known—they enjoy the pool table, television, karaoke system, small library and canteen/souvenir shop. They may pick up one of several guitars and start a sing-along. Most buy inexpensive long-distance cards and use one of the six private telephone booths to phone home. An Internet cafe is available too.

Currently, the Mission works closely with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese that provides a deacon who attends to the seafarers’ spiritual needs. A Roman Catholic priest also provides his services. Whittingham-Lamont, who recently completed her first year of study at the Atlantic School of Theology, works with chaplains from all over the world to help crewmembers requiring pastoral care. Her studies mesh well with her work, which requires great sensitivity to the seafarers’ personal and spiritual challenges. In another year’s time, after Diocesan training, she hopes to be ordained as an Anglican priest. At that time, the Bishop may choose to make her the mission’s chaplain.

Sometimes the Mission has serious responsibilities. “Many times over the years the sailors discover there’s been a death at home. Of course it depends on their rank on the ship whether they can fly home; there are also costs to keeping a ship in port,” says Whittingham-Lamont. Nonetheless, staff can arrange flights home or help sailors contact their families. Deaths aboard cruise ships are also not uncommon. Mission staff comfort the bereaved and help with post-death arrangements.

“Advocacy is a big part of what we do,” says Whittingham-Lamont. “Sometimes, when their cheques have been withheld, we help the sailors get paid. We also deal with bullying and victimization.”

The mission helps sailors who are stranded, such as the crew aboard the Craig Trans, a Bolivian-flagged tugboat forced into Halifax Harbour last December by a severe storm. The Honduran/Salvadoran crew had not eaten in three days and the vessel’s water was contaminated. Their employer was withholding wages (and never did pay them). Officials impounded the tug for safety violations and one long month later, after an outpouring of local and national support, they boarded planes and went home.

Helen Glenn, hired as manager just over a year ago, works primarily in-house. “My time is more focused on training volunteers, and financial and administrative management, though I do many ship visits when Maggie is away.” With only two full-time staff members, “we put in long hours,” says Glenn. “We are always looking for more volunteers.”

Maggie Whittingham-Lamont and Helen Glenn. Photo: Steve Jess

Maggie Whittingham-Lamont and Helen Glenn. Photo: Steve Jess

Bob Lancashire has been volunteering at the mission for nearly five years. A 30-year-veteran of the Canadian navy, he knows what the mission means to the seafarers, the majority of whom, even today, are men, living far away from family and home. He also agrees that for many Haligonians, the waterfront is more theoretical than actual. “Unless you have a reason to go to Point Pleasant Park, you’d never know there was a container terminal near-by.” He says anyone would enjoy volunteering at the centre: “If you’re interested in people from all over the world, then try it.”

The Reverend John Ashley, in Bristol, England, founded the first Mission to Seafarers in 1856 after he went aboard ships at anchor in the Bristol Channel and was dismayed by the sailors’ isolation and need. Today, Missions help and support the 1.3 million men and women seafarers keeping the global economy afloat.

In 2012 alone, Halifax Mission staff and volunteers made 454 ship visits. “This job is demanding, but there is nothing more rewarding than helping people,” Glenn says. “We like to say, ‘Volunteer at the mission and see the world!’ It’s what we do every day.”

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