The annual conference of the North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA), held in Montreal, Quebec, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, focused on the care of seafarers and their families. It is a subject that concerned the record-breaking conference attendance, as there have been and seemingly will continue to be profound changes in the world economy, the shipping world and communication technology. The maritime industry as a whole knows that improving the quality of life of a seafarer—especially access to the Internet—will be a determining factor in finding tomorrow’s seafarers.
Our focus on seafarers’ care let us contribute to those larger discussions. The seafaring life is integral to our modern economies and way of life, and the members of NAMMA seek to achieve two goals: to help seafarers retain the great honor of their profession, and to alleviate some of the effects of stress, loneliness and distance from family.
NAMMA counts among its members more than 50 seafarers’ centers across North America; in turn, those centers form part of a wider network of almost 450 seafarers’ centers around the world. Each NAMMA member center provides transportation, communication services and a friendly welcome for visiting seafarers in port. NAMMA’s coordinating assistance is crucial because each of these centers is its own nonprofit organization, and each center seeks advice on professional development, volunteer recruitment or raising support necessary to do the work of tending to seafarers’ needs. Members of the association find that reaching these goals is vastly more efficient when approached collaboratively, in partnership with each other and with NAMMA’s central leadership.
NAMMA was founded in 1932 and played a key role in founding a global seafarers’ welfare network, the International Christian Maritime Association, in 1969. Several of the organizations that belong to ICMA are substantially older than NAMMA. Indeed, some of the first seafarers’ welfare organizations were founded by various faith groups in the 19th century. They and others were concerned with the challenges sailors faced when returning to port or in between ship.
Real Help for Real Need
Life as a mariner was often difficult, made worse by the plague of “crimpers;” those dedicated to separating sailors from their money as quickly as possible, in many ports. Into the later 19th and throughout the 20th centuries, many of these welfare organizations were the first, and often only, line of defense for sailors in trouble. Many offered a clean, cheap, and safe place to stay in port and a staff that would make them feel at home.
After World War II, the needs of seafarers in port changed drastically. The request for seafarers’ hotels was diminished. As seafarers’ unions became more organized and international maritime regulations stronger, the centers that comprise NAMMA became one part of a larger network to effectively protect and support seafarers. Greater stability and stronger labor protections in this period meant that seafarers’ centers became a place to relax for a few hours and phone home, leading to such “seamen’s clubs,” as they were popularly known, to spring up in many places. Longstanding seafarers’ centers often were remodeled to include a games room, a place to call home and somewhere to enjoy snacks and refreshments.
In the last generation, these seamen’s clubs continue to host high numbers of seafarers, but primarily for a one specific reason: free Wi-Fi. Seafarers’ centers around the world have become key providers of high-speed Internet access for the crews of many ships. Though some do have Internet on board, the majority of ships still do not have anything approaching “high speed” – at least nothing like what we now expect on land. Further, as seafarers travel from continent to continent, it is still frustratingly difficult to find mobile phone SIM cards with affordable and reliable data access. Roaming SIM cards do exist, but costs are still prohibitive for the majority of seafarers to use them as their primary means of communication. Even these cards only work when in proximity to a land-based cell phone network.
Given the historical development of seafarers’ centers from missions established to protect mariners from port predators, to welcoming retreats for calling home and relaxing, to places where sailors can check their email and see their relatives via Skype – sometimes including newborn children – what, then, is the future of seafarers’ welfare?
Changing Needs; New Initiatives
Two key dynamics drive our thinking about the future. First, many NAMMA members note that the combination of paperwork, fatigue, quick turnaround time in port, and smaller crews all mean that fewer seafarers can come ashore for any length of time. While many ships spent days to load and unload a generation ago, they now can accomplish the same tasks in a matter of hours. There is much less time to relax and get off the ship while in port.
Second, though Internet connectivity is still poor on most ships, the day when the Internet is universally accessible is near. Whether the technology is fixed to ships, in orbit on microsatellites, or some other new technology, experts say we soon will see affordable Internet connectivity even in the most remote places on the ocean. For this reason, many of NAMMA’s most exciting new initiatives concern harnessing the power of Internet-based communities and communications to welcome and serve the men and women who visit North American ports. For example, we are presently rolling out a new program to coordinate ship visiting using a specially designed mobile phone app.
It is not yet clear what shape seafarers’ welfare organizations will be like in the next generation. That said; change is inevitable. Nevertheless, NAMMA’s members have always adjusted to the shipping industry’s movements and responded to the most pressing needs of seafarers from all countries when they arrive in our ports. NAMMA chaplains, ship visitors, staff and volunteers know the great adventure of climbing gangways or opening seafarers’ center doors to tired seafarers anxious to call home, play a game of pool, or simply have a soda and a snack off the ship. Most importantly, our centers know their most important task is to ask, “What can we do for you?” When eager to serve a visiting seafarer, a beautiful adventure always awaits.