Stop by for a visit at the Fort Vancouver Seafarers Center and on most days you’re likely to see a few volunteers on duty, helping out visiting crews of foreign mariners from the many commercial ships that dock at the Port of Vancouver.
But if you happen to visit on the day of one of the center’s four annual parties, you’ll be greeted by dozens of the volunteers and donors who have worked behind the scenes to keep the center open and available for seafarers for the past 53 years.
That was the scene on Sunday at the center’s Christmas party, which drew nearly 50 attendees. The volunteers are a mix of new and returning faces — some have been helping out for just a few years, while others can date their involvement back to the early years when the center was still at its original location on Evergreen Boulevard.
“There are some that always come, but then we’re always getting new people,” said Kent Williams, the center’s executive director. “They believe in our mission of helping the merchant mariners, who are basically invisible.”
New ships arrive at the port almost every day, each with 15 to 25 crew members who are eager to rest and contact family members after days or weeks at sea. Some of them lack the necessary permits to exit their ships, and even those with shore leave authorization are still required to have an escort.
The mostly volunteer-run Seafarers Center gives the crew members access to telephones, internet and recreational activities like a foosball table. It also features a kitchen, discount gift shop, chapel and small library — all located within its 4,000-square-foot building at the port.
A few of the center’s volunteers are authorized to escort seafarers to off-site locations, and the center operates two passenger vans to take crew members to area destinations such as Multnomah Falls — or more often, the Jantzen Beach Super Center for some shopping.
“They may be here for up to a few days — however long it takes to load or unload (the ship),” said Mary Moreno, president of the center’s board of directors.
Many of the volunteers and donors are retirees, and they often have connections to the maritime world either through their careers or their families. Former board member Ron Morrison, for example, said he met many seafarers at various ports while he served in the U.S. Coast Guard.
The nature of the volunteer job has changed a bit over time. Lili and Alf Gregerson recalled that at one time they were able to invite seafarers to their house for dinner, but the shore pass rules were substantially tightened as part of an overall increase in port security after 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act.
“It’s a totally different picture,” he said.
But the need for support for seafarers remains consistent, and many of the Christmas party attendees spoke about the physical and emotional rigors of a job that keeps the crew away from their families for months at a time.
At any given time, there are approximately 250,000 vessels out at sea, according to Williams. And while some modern ships have amenities such as recreational space, many are rugged and minimalist, designed for the lowest possible operating cost.
Seafaring crews tend to be mostly made up of men in their 20s and 30s, who often come from developing countries — center staff say a majority of the current seafarer visitors tend to be from the Philippines — and they often take the job due to a shortage of available work, and wire much of their salaries back to their families.
“I think being a seafarer is probably one of the toughest jobs there is,” said Port Commissioner Don Orange.
The party also featured a talk from Joanne Rideout, who hosts a show called “Ship Report” on KMUN radio in Astoria, Ore. Rideout discussed a 10-day trip she took on Ukrainian cargo ship in 2010, and talked about the conditions the crew worked under, which she described as an industrial environment with constant motion, noise and vibration.
“There’s something really fascinating about the maritime life and the maritime world,” she said. “You see all these big ships go by, but you never see any people — the people who make it all work are quite invisible.”
Rideout also talked about the slow and deliberate process that ships need to follow to make it to the Port of Vancouver and successfully dock, which can take hours of careful maneuvering.
Most major shipping ports have teams of pilots — local experts who provide guidance to ship crews as they navigate unfamiliar rivers and channels. Ships heading to the Port of Vancouver rely on two sets of pilots, she said — one to navigate through six treacherous miles at the mouth of the Columbia River, and another to guide them on the six-hour trip up the river, which includes roughly 100 course changes to stay inside the shipping channel.
“And to think, this happens every day on the river,” she said. “We really just sort of take it for granted when we go to Target.”
The Christmas party is one of four events that the center hosts each year. The events serve as the primary fundraising opportunity for the organization, which looks to raise about $125,000 each year to continue operating, according to Williams.
The center mostly collects small monetary donations, but it also accepts donations of things like coffee mugs and toiletries. In recent weeks, volunteers at the center have been working to assemble those supplies into nearly 300 gift bags that will be handed out to visiting seafarers during the holidays, Moreno said.