All at sea with digital contact

With usual methods of communication stopped by Covid, Greg Watts meets the port chaplains who are ministering through digital media

The essence of being a Stella Maris port chaplain is going on board a ship to meet the crew and see if they need any practical help or pastoral support. During the Covid-19 pandemic, however, this has not always been allowed by the authorities. So, Stella Maris port chaplains developed a digital ministry.


Seafarers have been very much at the heart of the pandemic.  It’s largely thanks to them that our hospitals have had vital medical equipment and medicines and that the shelves in our supermarkets have been stocked.  For approximately 90% of the goods imported into the UK come by ship. 


Peter Morgan, Stella Maris port chaplain to the ports of Bristol, Sharpness, Cardiff, and Newport, said it wasn’t hard making the switch to solely digital means of communication.


“I’d been communicating a lot with seafarers on social media before the pandemicm,” he says. “I’d been spending time in the evenings talking to seafarers on Facebook and WhatsApp. But when I had to spend long periods of time doing this, I found it incredibly difficult.


What Peter missed was face-to-face contact with seafarers.


“So much of the job is non-verbal,” he says. “And you just don’t get this on WhatsApp. There are different markers to observe stress or anxiety when you meet seafarers.


“To be able to see these, you need to have face-to-face communication. That way, you can get an inkling that something is troubling a seafarer.


 “You can only do so much of going to near the top of a gangway and craning your neck to ask if you can come on board, and then being told no - it feels like you’re being rejected.


“You don’t have any of those staircase conversations, those moments when you’re transitioning from one part of a ship to another with a crew member and you have time to ask them if they’re really okay. That’s when you can pick up on their body language.”


Being at sea for nine months at a time can place huge strains on a seafarer’s mental well-being. Apart from doing a tough and demanding job, they are away from their families, they often don’t get time ashore, and they might have issues getting paid.

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Greg Watts is a freelance writer and journalist.

Stella Maris port chaplains still keep in touch with seafarers once they have left port. However, despite the way technology has transformed shipping – so that now even a huge container ship might only have a crew of 20 – internet access remains patchy at sea. 


“It’s frustrating, especially if a seafarer is suffering from stress or anxiety,” says Peter. “You might get someone getting in touch with you at 2 am because that’s when they have both free time and internet access.


“Often you might only talk for half an hour, and then you might not hear from the person for another week. And you wonder how they are managing.”

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Peter Morgan: “Going to the top of a gangway and craning your neck to ask if you can come on board, and then being told no feels like you’re being rejected.

Steve Willows, Stella Maris’ Immingham port chaplain has been conducting live prayer sessions every Wednesday for about a year now on the charity's Facebook channel. This provides a virtual space for seafarers and supporters of the charity to join in and pray for seafarers and fishers.


Faith is important to many Catholic seafarers, and knowing that there are people out there thinking about them and praying for them gives them comfort and reassurance.


Gregory Hogan is Stella Maris port chaplain to Southampton. Many of the seafarers he meets work on cruise ships, and most come from the Philippines. At the height of the pandemic, a number of cruise ships were anchored off the England’s south coast for months, with some of the crew still on board.


“We were not permitted to go near cruise ships, he explains.  “This is when we tried to reach out to the crew through our weekly Gospel reading and prayer video.


“My fellow Stella Maris port chaplain, Charles, and I recorded the Sunday Gospel reading of the Mass and emailed it to cruise ship companies, who kindly passed it on to the individual cruise ships, where it was uploaded on to the internal TV system for the crew to watch. The videos were also posted on the Stella Maris Facebook and YouTube pages.”


Being stuck out at sea for so long took its toll on some of those working on cruise ships. A member of the crew on a ship docked in Falmouth committed suicide. Gregory and a port chaplain who was a priest were given permission to go on board the ship to offer prayers, bless the crew and their cabins, and hold a requiem service.


While digital contact is no substitute for human contact, Gregory says it has been invaluable for seafarers and port chaplains throughout the pandemic.


“We’re keeping in touch with seafarers through Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp has reassured them that they are not forgotten and that we’re always here to respond to their needs.”


To learn more about, or support the work of, Stella Maris chaplains click here.