During the lockdown due to the pandemic, seafarers have played a vital role in the global supply chain and global trade flow. One of the distinctive traits of the apostolate of Stella Maris has always been visiting ships with closeness to the seafarers and fishers. How is the assistance changing at the moment? What is the situation specifically in Cape Town?
The Stella Maris ministry of visiting seafarers and fishers onboard ships has changed dramatically. Before the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Chaplain and ship visitors were normally most welcome onboard. We have felt the hospitality of seafarers and their joy in welcoming us inside the ship as far as the Cargo Control Room (CCR) or Mess Room where we usually chat with them. Seafarers, especially the Filipinos, are quite hospitable. Sometimes I, especially being the Chaplain, have been invited to eat snacks or lunch with them. They are happy to share their food and drinks and we are also happy to serve them and offer our free services. Stella Maris offers 6 free services for them namely: (1) We lend a Pocket Wi-Fi Router which we collect before they sail, or we provide them with airtime/data to communicate with their families at home; (2) We give toiletries to those in need of it; (3) we provide the sick with non-prescription medicine; (4) We give sports equipment e.g. a bicycle, basketball, soccer balls, dartboards, deck cards, and dominoes. We also lend them guitars and collect them before they sail. (5) I celebrate Holy Mass or bless the crew. (6) We give books, Bibles, rosary beads, and scapulars.
At present, the situation in Cape Town is terrible. South Africa is the worst-hit country in Africa. It has passed 2 million infections since March 2020. The national lockdown level goes up and down depending on the infection rate which determines whether we can visit ships or not. In this pandemic where both the National Government and shipping companies impose severe restrictions, we are prohibited from entering inside the ship. We can go on board as far as the deck or to the top of the gangway. A few times, we have not even been allowed to go up the gangway. We call out for them from the wharf below and they respond to us by saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I have had 2 extreme experiences in visiting ships: (1) on deck, 2 seafarers requested me to step in the disinfectant chemical/alcohol with my arms raised sideways, they sprayed me with alcohol; (2) last Christmas I distributed Christmas gifts from ITF Seafarers’ Fund consisting of chocolates and sweets. On reaching the deck, the seafarers told me that they were not allowed to accept anything from outside, even Christmas presents because they were on high alert level # 1. So, I turned to my car with the presents.
These incidents saddened me. Sometimes, I have felt that we are not welcome anymore. At other times, I have felt that they were afraid of us, treating us like Covid-19 carriers. However, I know that it is not their fault but a necessary cautious response in preventing Covid-19 infection. In response to this changing situation, we are also cautiously adapting our ministry to the protocol in place and their needs. We usually ask permission before boarding a ship. Given permission, we go on board; if not, we leave and go to another ship. The service we offer also changes. Among others, we have added PPE’s (personal protective equipment) and vitamin C in the toiletry being distributed. We distribute vaccination booklets and flyers to enable them to contact us on mobile phones and various social media platforms like Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp. Since they were not given shore leave and could get off the vessel, we went the extra mile of serving them by purchasing food, drinks, medication and other items which they wanted but could not buy personally. We also have online Sunday Masses that they can watch on Facebook.
What are new ways of being present? And what changes are there in maritime pastoral care?
The Covid-19 pandemic has raised suspicion between seafarers and port chaplain/ship visitors. Both parties have suspected each other as possible carriers of the virus. And so, to avoid getting infected, seafarers are not given shore leave; not even allowed to get off their vessel. And for the seafarers’ protection, port chaplains/ship visitors are prohibited from entering the Mess Room or any place inside the vessel; we get on board as far as the deck or up the gangway. Every time I visit ships, I always ask the seafarers to inform the Officer on the Bridge that the Stella Maris Port Chaplain is here to visit them and to log my visit in the vessel’s logbook even though I cannot enter inside. Why do I do that? I do that so that everyone on board with the walkie-talkie hears that Stella Maris comes to visit. These are normal protocols on any ship visit, but I need to make sure that it is done because there are times when the seafarers don’t call the Bridge anymore or log my visit because they don’t allow outsiders to get inside the vessel anyway.
To call the officer and to log my visit are important to us. This is what I consider as 1st way of being present. Seafarers on board need to hear even through the walkie talkie that Stella Maris Port Chaplain or ship visitor comes to visit them. The 2nd way is through social media. We distribute Stella Maris flyers every ship visit, containing all means to communicate with us. With that, any seafarer can reach us through phones and social media platforms. We are more and more present to them virtually. Now, do they really communicate with us? Yes, when they need something. There is a saying that goes, “No news, is good news.” When they send us emails or Facebook or WhatsApp messages we are happy. When we don’t receive, we are also happy because that means they are ok. Most of the time seafarers don’t communicate with us without a clear request for something. But fishers do send us hundreds of messages with or without a request. The 3rd way of being present is in hotel visitation. I have visited 3 hotels a few times to bring food, vitamin C, medicine, masks, hand sanitisers, toiletries, and money for financial assistance. Like ship visits, we visit them as far as the reception area of the hotels. Sometimes, I don’t meet or see them; that’s fine. What is important is that I have delivered what they needed while in the hotel for quarantine. Seafarers and fishers are quarantined in the hotels when they arrive or leave Cape Town. Those who arrive spend only a few days of quarantine except when found to be Covid-19 positive. Those who are leaving spend more days in the hotel especially when they have trouble with their flights. Several of them spend almost a month in the hotel, hence I visit and provide for their needs.
What changes in maritime pastoral care? Well, an obvious change is the suspension of hospital visits because of the high risk of Covid-19 infections. Hospitals do not allow family members to visit their patients as well as not allowing Stella Maris hospital visitors. But ship visits may be allowed or not depending on the level of lockdown. When permitted to visit ships, we do it with extra care and precautions through social distancing. Our physical presence certainly is curtailed or limited but we are growing in social media communication. The limited personal presence onboard is compensated with a virtual presence. Adapting to the situation that they cannot get off the vessel, lately, we accept requests from both seafarers and fishers to buy their personal food and drinks, medicine, pair of shoes, luggage, and various electronic devices like USB, external memory, Bluetooth earphones, and cell phones. We do hotel visits to deliver any request or needs of seafarers and fishers who are in quarantine. Lastly, on matters of the spiritual aspect, we offer spiritual nourishment as much as we can. I remember having a challenging blessing of the crew by standing on the Port side while they were on their vessel. We do have a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/seafarers.capetown or Stella Maris South Africa and WhatsApp number that are open 24/7 for any request especially for prayer and Mass intentions. There is an online Sunday Mass which they can watch. In brief, Stella Maris adapts our ministry to the people of the sea according to the developing situation and needs of the times.
What role do volunteers play?
The conventional role of volunteers is to assist the Port Chaplain in the ship and hospital visits which they did very well here in Cape Town. There are times that they did it more often than the Chaplain and did it better. Unfortunately, the volunteers in Stella Maris Cape Town are advanced in age. Healthwise, it is not advisable for them to do ship and hospital visits because of the high risk of getting infected. I have two volunteers now who come to the Parish of St Agnes Catholic Church to help me pack the toiletries and I distribute them to the seafarers and fishers. The other assistance the volunteers can offer is in writing newsletters and social media promotions of our ministry. They can promote and advertise the ministry to give a wider awareness in the society starting from their family, network of organisations, friends and acquaintances. Finally, they can offer us more in widening our network and partners in our advocacy and lobbying for the rights and protection of seafarers and fishers and in getting financial or other support for the ministry since they are the locals, and they do have a broader knowledge of who or what organization to approach and work with for the best of the seafarers and fisher.
Fr Rico Almedilla Talisic, cs is a Filipino Scalabrinian missionary priest. He was ordained on 12 May 2018 and sent to Cape Town, South Africa for his first missionary assignment. He was appointed Port Chaplain of Stella Maris Cape Town and Parish Vicar of St Agnes Catholic Church on 01 February 2019. Since then, he has been actively ministering to the people of the sea who arrive at the Port of Cape Town.