Crewing a cargo ship is an isolating experience in the best of times, let alone nine months into a pandemic. That’s why it’s more important than ever to make sure the world’s seafarers aren’t forgotten during the holiday season, says Kent Williams, executive director of the Fort Vancouver Seafarers Center.
Operating out of a small building inside the Port of Vancouver, the Seafarers Center normally serves as a home away from home for sailors on commercial vessels at the docks. But like so many other businesses and charities this year, the center has had to adapt to world changed by COVID-19.
The pandemic has left as many as 300,000 seafarers stranded on their ships, unable to disembark due to quarantine measures at foreign ports and in some cases unable to secure repatriation to their home countries.
“These guys have been quarantined on their ships since March,” Williams said.
International law limits seafarer work contracts to 12 months, but the quarantine measures have forced some workers into extensions. In the worst cases, that’s meant 17 months and counting without being able to go home.
The center normally caps off the year by hosting a Christmas Party for seafarers and community supporters alike, typically drawing about 40 attendees, said Mary Moreno, president of the center’s board of directors.
The pandemic makes the usual festivities impossible, so this year Seafarers Center staff and volunteers are putting their efforts into the organization’s other regular winter tradition: Christmas gift bags for ship crew members.
The bags contain knit caps, socks, gloves, Christmas mugs, candy and an assortment of other essentials and amenities that can’t be found out at sea. Williams said he and his fellow staff and volunteers aim to deliver 1,100 bags this year — double the amount the center normally produces.
“We’ve been preparing since the end of September,” he said.
The hundreds of bags stretched across a row of tables in the main room of the Seafarers Center, where they’re assembled in groups of six for quick distribution. The average ship crew size is 21, so Williams and the volunteers usually try to have slightly more than that amount ready for each ship.
Volunteers have to stay on their toes to make sure the bags are delivered, Williams said. The ships can be tracked as they make their way up the Columbia River, but there’s often a gap between when they arrive at the port and when they actually pull up to the docks to load or unload, and sometimes the docking can happen overnight.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Seafarer Center would be able to count on at least some of the crew of each ship to show up in person to collect bags and bring more back for their shipmates who lacked the necessary shore passes to disembark.
This year, everyone has to stay on board, which means the center has to rely on a single person to deliver all the bags, except in the lucky cases where a ship is close enough to the dock to allow the bags to be physically handed across the gap.
“Normally, there are problems getting guys off the ship if they don’t have shore passes or whatever, but now they can’t get off at all,” Williams said.
Distribution usually begins after Thanksgiving, according to Moreno, although Williams said this year staff began delivering the bags in October. The deliveries are likely to continue well into January as additional ships dock at the port.
Part of the struggle this year has been finding ways to keep the usual Seafarers Center volunteers engaged, Williams said. The center relies on community support and volunteer work for its operations, but normally volunteers can meet with seafarers in person to get a sense of how their work is benefiting the maritime community.
Maintaining that sense of connection is tougher during the pandemic, he said, but it makes it all the more important to find ways to do it, because the seafarers need support now more than ever.
“The frustrating thing for us of course is we want to do more, but we’re blocked until this thing is over,” Williams said.
Fortunately, the Vancouver community appears to understand the importance of the center’s mission. The center sent out letters to its regular volunteer community in October to ask for additional holiday help, Williams said, and the result has been a constant stream of community members calling in with donations for the holiday bags.
Williams speculated that the increased involvement might be due to people seeking meaningful things to do while stuck at home. Donations of knitted hats, in particular, have been plentiful this year.
In the long run, Williams said he’s confident that regular Seafarers Center traditions like the Christmas party will come roaring back once the pandemic is over — but it’s up to the staff and volunteers to make sure the seafarers are still supported in the meantime.