The war in Ukraine might be 1,500 miles away from the UK, but Stella Maris port chaplains, such as permanent deacon John Fogarty, who covers the Kent coast, have heard from seafarers of its terrible destruction and how it has ripped families apart .
Recently, John explained, he was asked by a shipping agent to visit a ship in Sheerness and meet with the Ukrainian captain and first officer.
“We sat together in the captain’s mess and I said to the captain, ‘How are you?’ He looked at me with tears in his eyes, unable to speak. And then the first officer said, ‘We are at war’. It was a very painful moment as the reality of what he said really hit home.
“After a few moments the captain said, ‘I don’t know where my wife is. We don’t know if our children are well.’ We all sat together in silence but in solidarity for some time.”
John gave the captain and first officer mobile phone SIM cards, which he always carries with him when visiting ships, as they enable seafarers to keep in contact with their families back home. With the fast turnaround of ships in port, there’s often no time for seafarers to visit local shops, let alone navigate the complexities of some ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.
Both Ukrainian and Russian seafarers are shocked and horrified by what they are seeing and hearing about the war, said John.
“I spoke to the Russian captain of a vessel with 13 Russian crew members. His mother was half Ukrainian and he was almost apologetic, as were the crew members, simply for being Russian. It struck me that there may be many more seafarers feeling the very same.”
Just before Christmas, East Anglia regional port chaplain Julian Wong facilitated a last-minute day trip into London for the Ukrainian captain of a container vessel.
In March, the captain brought his vessel back into Felixstowe port. When the captain said his wife and daughter were fleeing Ukraine due to the war and desperately seeking accommodation in Poland, Julian told him that Fr Edward Pracz, Stella Maris Poland national director, had opened a refugee centre in Gdynia for seafarers and their families.
The captain immediately rang Fr Edward who confirmed he could accommodate the family. He then contacted his wife and daughter who made their way to Gdynia to join 50 other seafarers and their families under Fr Edward’s wing.
Some weeks later, the captain’s ship was scheduled to call in Hamburg, so arrangements were made for the captain to be reunited with his family in port. The captain’s family drove nearly nine hours across Poland and Germany to Hamburg, where Stella Maris port chaplain Monica Döring from the Stella Maris seafarers’ mission in Hamburg had arranged overnight accommodation for them.
The next morning, Monica drove them into the port to be on the quayside as the captain guided his vessel into port. They were then reunited after seven months apart and were able to spend a joyous day and night together as a family again before the vessel departed the following day.
When a Ukrainian seafarer was transported to Hull Royal Infirmary after breaking his back on the cargo ship he was working on, Anne McLaren, Stella Maris Area Port Chaplain for the North of England, visited him.
As the seafarer spoke little English, Anne brought in a Ukrainian interpreter. She discovered that he was from Kherson. His house had been bombed, and his family were still sheltering in the city.
For the several months that he was in Hull, Anne and volunteers from Stella Maris visited him regularly, bringing him clean clothes, toiletries, and SIM cards so that he could contact his family back home.
Sea Sunday falls on 10 July, and we are asked to pray for seafarers, who work in hazardous conditions, all types of weather, and even during war, to bring us many of the goods we rely on in daily life.
We are also asked to support Stella Maris and its global network of port chaplains and volunteer ship visitors. Their work is hidden, but for seafarers, far away from home and in a foreign land, they are a true lifeline and Good Samaritan.