Apostleship of the Sea is a registered charity and agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England & Wales and Scotland that provides pastoral, emotional and practical support, information and a listening ear to seafarers regardless of race and religion who arrive at ports in the Diocese.

Seafarers work in the margins of society and live a semi-nomadic life that’s hidden from view. Many ports, including the ones in Brentwood Diocese are far from towns, and they exist behind security fences.

Working at sea might sound romantic, but the reality is very different. Seafarers can go weeks without having any contact with their families back home.

This means they not only can miss the birth of a child or other significant family moments, but they can also experience anxiety over relationships, and other things.

The turnaround time for ships is quick and the shifts continue when a vessel is in port, so the opportunity for any kind of change of scenery or change in general is very small. In some cases, the ship can feel like a prison.

Do we ever really stop and think about the importance of what they do? Just look around your home. Look at your television, your computers, your fridges, your cars, the light switches that keep your lights on – all this is brought to us by seafarers.

And yet few of us know anything about their lives. There is a saying which goes ‘without seafarers, half the world would starve while the other half would freeze.’

Nobody goes on to docks to meet seafarers. Nobody knows how seafarers live or ply their trade. Many of them are away from home for nine months, 12 months at a time.

Patricia Ezra and Wojciech Holub, Apostleship of the Sea Port Chaplains who work in the Brentwood Diocese, and their team of volunteer ship visitors, support seafarers. They reach out to seafarers by going on board their ships to meet them and extend a hand of friendship.

Many seafarers are themselves Catholic, coming from places like the Philippines, Poland and Goa in India so the work of AoS ship visitors are vital in ensuring AoS’ ministry to them can continue.

Ship visitors are the ‘bridges’ between the Church and seafarers, and play a vital role in taking the Church to seafarers, as many are not able to themselves attend Mass or receive the sacraments.

They are the link that enables AoS reach out to seafarers on the margins and ongoing response to the Gospel.

There are several ways you can volunteer with AoS

1. Become a Ship Visitor

Volunteer ship visitors go onboard vessels to visit seafarers, approaching them as friends, listening to their concerns and where possible offering practical help, for example providing news from seafarers’ home countries, local information, transporting them to local amenities and arranging for Mass or liturgy on board.

You could also hand out prayer cards and faith-based resources, rosaries, and woolly hats to them. Sometimes, depending on the situation, just being present and available to seafarers for that short period of time is all that is required. Seafarers appreciate having a friend in port when they arrive and someone they can turn to if they need help and support.

There are no specific qualifications or special skills needed to become a ship visitor and you will be provided with training and the necessary equipment to go on board ships.

Formal guidance will be given, due to the need for adequate health and safety training.  Initially you will shadow a port chaplain or experienced volunteer Ship Visitor to learn the ropes.  If you enjoy your volunteering and decide to stay with AoS, you will need to take the on-line Merchant Navy Welfare Board (MNWB) ‘Ship Welfare Visitor’ training course. 

Not only will you have the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of seafarers, you will also gain new skills, receive training and make new friends.

Please contact our Port Chaplains in the first instance:

Patricia Ezra

07758 356 372 / [email protected]

Wojciech Holub

07963 199 924 / [email protected]

2. Become a Parish Contact

AoS is always looking for people to act as a link between parishes and AoS.  At a basic level we would ask you to assist with promoting our annual Sea Sunday appeal.  Sea Sunday is held on the second Sunday in July and churches across the Diocese will hold a second collection for AoS. As a parish contact you are encouraged to give a short talk at Mass about AoS (Resource packs and a scripted talk will be provided). You will also help in ensuring the second collection is taken up. If you would like to be more involved then you could hold a fundraising event such as a coffee morning to raise awareness or even give a talk about the work of AoS.

3. Other Volunteering Roles

There are a number of other ways you could get involved.  Here are just a few suggestions: collect shoe boxes of toiletries etc as gifts for seafarers at Christmas, collect good quality jumpers, coats and fleeces, organise a fundraising event e.g. run a marathon, arrange a coffee morning, etc. The choice is yours and any help you can give to AoS in any form will be greatly appreciated.

Julian Wong is an AoS Ship Visitor and Parish Contact. He is also a Eucharistic Minister at his church, and regularly goes on board ships to distribute Holy Communion to the crews.

Julian says: “It’s a real blessing and very humbling to be able to extend my role as Eucharistic Minister from church to ships. The seafarers are very thankful and grateful, but some say to me ‘…but I’ve not been to church and confession’.”

Julian shared their answer with a nun and her response was the same as his: “God knows and receiving Holy Communion is so healing. Encourage them.”

Julian adds, “When I visit the seafarers, I tell them I also hold a weekly rosary prayer group at my parish. I then ask them if they would like to write down any prayer request in my little prayer request book. They are always very keen to do so because they know God always answer prayers.

“On several occasions I visited a seafarer who was hospitalised and ensured he was in constant contact with his family back in the Philippines and with his colleagues. During those visits I gave him lots of prayer resources and we prayed together each time I visited.

“On one ship, the Chief Cook informed me that he holds a bible study/prayer session every Wednesday and Sunday on board when they are at sea. It was just so wonderful to hear that! He asked if I could supply them with more copies of bibles. I managed to get him six copies and also gave him an LED candle and a Crucifix.

“Seafarers are also glad to receive knitted items such as woolly hats, scarves and gloves as these help keep them warm when working on deck during the winter months.

“I keep in touch with some seafarers on Facebook if they are happy to do so as it provides an easy way to communicate and offer support. I sometimes get to know their families too and we have become friends.”

Patricia Ezra is one of AoS’ Port Chaplains covering the Diocese.

During a ship visit in Harwich Port in May, Patricia was just leaving the cruise ship Costa Favolosa when the crew member seeing her off commented that it would be nice if they could have Mass on board when they came back in September. So Patricia said she would see what she could do.

“My first issue was finding out who the agent was, but this was quickly sorted,” said Patricia. “Then I contacted the agent who said they would contact the ship. Time passed and there was no response, so I asked again, and again. Then just when I was thinking I wasn’t going to get a reply the HR Director of the ship contacted me to say they would be happy to host Mass for the crew.”

This was the first Mass Patricia had arranged on board and the first Mass the priest has ever said on a ship, so both were a little unsure of what would happen. On the day, they met up in the supermarket car park in plenty of time and headed to the cruise terminal at Harwich International Port, hard hats and Hi-Viz to hand, of course.

Patricia says, “Next it was off to get the priest a pass and then make their way through security to the ship. The agent had added them to the list of visitors so that made things easier. We were met by the Head of Security on behalf of the HR Director and escorted to their beautiful little chapel. Once there they prepared the chapel for Mass and the priest was also asked to bless a further supply of holy water. That done Mass took place for several of the crew who were able to attend between their duties. This was followed by a lovely thank you for coming to visit and saying Mass.”

In September 2018, Wojciech Holub, AoS Port Chaplain in Tilbury went on board a ship to provide pastoral support to the grieving crew when they arrived at Erith Port in London.

Two of their shipmates had died following an incident on board. Wojciech said, “The crew were terribly distraught and overcome by sadness. One of the dead men was very much a father figure to the crew, while the other was a close friend to several of his crew mates.” 

Some of the Filipino crew members requested that a Catholic chaplain bless the ship so Wojciech blessed the cabins and the cargo hold area. 

He said, “We prayed together, and I encouraged them to speak about their grief. It was very emotional and several of them broke down in tears during our conversations.”

Wojciech added, “One of the deceased seafarers had been due to retire and was on his final contract of employment. He had joked that he would probably die while at sea. It really was his final voyage. Another crew member said he found it particularly difficult to accept the situation because he recently lost his son to an illness and had now lost a very close friend.” 

“It was a terrible time for the seafarers, but they were grateful for our presence and reassured by the pastoral support AoS provided,” said Wojciech.

On another occasion Patricia received an email from the crewing agent of a ship. A crew member had gone missing whilst at sea and the other seafarers requested a visit by a priest when the ship called at port.  Patricia says, “I contacted the local Catholic priest who was pleased to help and we boarded the vessel at the Captain’s invitation.  The crew were on a very short turnaround time and would only be in port for a maximum of six hours.  As it was an unusual cargo, the crew were also having to unload it.  This meant that stopping for a full Mass was not possible.  However, the priest was able to provide communion for seafarers on an individual basis as they became available.”

Another time, Patricia was able to arrange a reunion between a brother and sister who had not seen each other for over 10 years. She got a phone call asking if she could help a lady who had not seen her brother (a seafarer) for over 10 years.

Patricia says, “I found out that his ship would be arriving into port at a scheduled date and time. I checked this and confirmed the vessel will be in port and arrange to meet the lady at the nearest train station. All is well, but it is Saturday and the trains are not running very well so she is delayed and arrives five minutes before her brother’s shift starts. I dart out to the shop and make contact with the seafarer. After some negotiation the seafarer is able to arrange cover for his shift and is able to join his sister at the seafarers’ centre for the afternoon. In spite of the little snag they both had a lovely time and there were smiles all round. Little things that we do but they make such a huge difference.”