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Dileep Athaide on the Coronavirus and Port Chaplaincy

Pope Francis has said, "Without the people of the sea, many parts of the world would starve." Though seafarers aboard ships are essential workers, few people think of them. But port chaplains do. Your church can include seafarers and port chaplains in congregational prayers.

Dileep Athaide is a retired college professor and union activist in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. After becoming ordained as a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, he became an Apostleship of the Sea (Stella Maris) port chaplain. In this edited conversation, Athaide discusses global shipping and how port chaplains stay connected with seafarers despite the pandemic.

Why did you become a port chaplain?

Seven years after my wife died, the Archdiocese of Vancouver revived the permanent diaconate. I have been a devout Catholic all my life, and talked with my pastor about this vocation. Sea ministry was not even on my radar when I went through my four-year formation. After ordination I was assigned for three years as a parish deacon at Sacred Heart Parish in Delta [a Vancouver suburb] and also as the Stella Maris Catholic chaplaincy coordinator for the Port of Vancouver.

Since 2018, my diaconate service has been principally as a port chaplain with Stella Maris, the world's largest ship-visiting network. I am based at Mission to Seafarers, a maritime ministry cooperative of Catholic, Anglican, and Christian Reformed port chaplains. We work together as staff, volunteers, and interns so as not to duplicate each other's efforts.

Do you need anything special to be a chaplain to seafarers?

You need to be physically able to go up and down gangways and not be afraid of heights. I wear a hard hat, safety vest, and steel-toed boots. And I usually wear a clerical collar so ship crews can recognize me as a chaplain. It's nice if you speak bits of other languages, like Hindi and Tagalog, but most important is to be culturally aware and open to recognizing the needs of all.

This ministry of seafaring chaplaincy involves much spiritual and pastoral care. You can't go up to a ship with a preaching attitude. When I was ordained as a permanent deacon, the archbishop's blessing was that the Holy Spirit would guide us to hear, live, and preach the gospel—in that order. You have to develop a rapport with seafarers, so that they trust you enough to ask, for example, "Can you pray for my mom back home?" or "Can you pray for me? My wife had our son six months ago, and I've never seen him. I miss them."

How important is shipping in Vancouver?

Shipping is important all over the world because 90 percent of global trade moves by ship. Vancouver is the only Canadian port that doesn't slow down in winter, and world-wide shipping itself hasn't slowed during the pandemic. Massive bulk carriers and container ships carry cars, furniture, TVs, laptops, and more from Asia. Canada exports metallurgical coal, bulk sulfur, grains, oil seeds, and legumes. The largest ships that come into Vancouver are longer than three football fields, and the coal vessels can hold up to 180,000 tons of coal.

Where do the ships and seafarers come from?

Because we're a Pacific port, we get mainly Asian crews. About 80 percent are Filipino or Indian, and about 90 percent of Filipinos are Catholic. The rest are from countries such as China, Taiwan, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Senior officers are often Japanese or South Korean, paralleling the vessel ownership. We get a few East Europeans—Poles, Romanians, Croatians, and Greeks—but very few West Europeans and almost no Africans or South Americans at our port. Almost all are male.

I board some ships where everyone is the same nationality and others with 11 or 12 nationalities among a crew of two dozen. English is the working language on ships, except that most Chinese crew members don't speak English—which can pose a great hazard in case of a ship fire or such emergency while in port..

What have you learned about how ship crews are organized?

Even though ships are enormous, automation has been reducing crew size. Most have only 20 to 24 crew members, including the senior officers and lower-ranked ratings. The deck crew consists of the shipmaster or captain, and chief, second, and third officers, all who have gone through marine officer training. The ratings include able-bodied (certified) and general or ordinary seamen. When the ship is at sea, they navigate and patrol the vessel to make sure all is well. In port they work with longshore workers to load and unload. The bosun is the boss of the ratings. In the old days, a boson needed a big, strong, loud voice to call out to longshoremen. Now that's done by radio. The deck crew also includes the chief cook and mess man [second cook].

The engine crew is headed by the chief engineer, who has the same ranking as the shipmaster. There are also second, third, and fourth engineers and sometimes an electrician. The engine ratings or mates include oilers who keep maintenance going nonstop in the engine room. Engine rooms are six to seven floors high and tend to be quite hot. In my six years as a chaplain, I've known of a few injuries and even deaths from engine fires and related accidents.

How long are seafarers away from their families?

The ratings typically sign contracts of six to ten months. In between contracts they take two or three months unpaid leave to enjoy quality time with their families. The Philippines have many good marine schools, and Filipinos make for very good seafarers. The $12,000 that a deckhand can make per year is far better than they could get at home. The Philippines economy relies heavily on remittances sent home by overseas Filipino workers.

Ship officers usually have shorter contracts. Some German flag ships have European officers who have roughly three months onboard, three months off. They fly home from port cities but remain on the payroll all year. Shipmasters can earn up to $150,000 a year. There's very little resentment about the pay gap between officers and ratings. It's small compared to major corporations, where executives often earn 1,000 times as much as employees.

How well do seafarers get to know others onboard, and how do chaplains get to know seafarers?

Officers and ratings-crew eat in separate messes [ship dining and socializing areas] on either side of the ship galley or kitchen. The shipmaster and senior officers know that rapport is very important for life on board. Fellow crew members become like family. Filipinos often enjoy singing karaoke. Ships usually have a little gym with a ping pong table, basketball hoop, and workout equipment.

Ships are generally in port for about three days at a time. Sometimes we develop longer-term relationships with crew members because many Pacific ships are on regular schedules where they're back in Vancouver in about seven weeks. Crews change depending on contract lengths. I give a business card that includes my email address. Recently a Polish captain on a container ship sent a message about five days before they docked. He said, "We're all sad, because the owners won't allow the crew off the ship when we dock. If one of them gets COVID and it spreads, how can we treat it in the middle of the ocean? So could you bring us 16 pizzas—plus Indian takeout for three Indian officers?" They were so grateful when I showed up with this meal for them, and it also gave the cook a break.

What was your chaplaincy like before the pandemic?

Pre-covid, my ship visits would be about 30 to 60 minutes. Seafarers and officers always welcomed me for a meal and to chat. Although I'm a permanent deacon, they call me Father. I try to respond to both their pastoral and temporal needs. I used to often conduct a Liturgy of the Word and Holy Communion service aboard ships with predominantly Catholic crew. I aligned my homily to seafarers. Sometimes a ship’s master asks me to bless a brand-new ship, so I pray and go around with holy water to bless the bridge, common areas, engine room, cabins, etc. They really appreciate that.

Stella Maris has a minivan donated by the ITF Seafarers Trust Fund [International maritime charity], so I often saved seafarers a taxi fare by driving them to the malls, churches, or elsewhere. Internet access on ships ranges from good to limited to none, so we have a wifi room kept open 24/7 so people can go online and get in touch with their families.

What kinds of problems do port chaplains address?

Once, after a ship I had previously blessed returned from Japan, the captain asked me for help to conduct a sort-of minor exorcism. A junior officer on night watch at the bridge kept sensing something like a ghost, and he heard an inside door slam. I prayed with that officer and explained, "It's possible that was a spirit sent to test your faith. Here's a candle that was blessed on a pilgrimage I had made to Lourdes. You can keep it on the bridge and say a prayer if this ever occurs again." I followed up later and they had had no more problems.

About once a year, I deal with a tragedy that happened at sea, like when a chief engineer collapsed in the young second engineer's arms in the engine room. He never regained consciousness. The crew had to bag his body and clear out a walk-in freezer. The police and coroner took over when the ship arrived, but there was still a pastoral need. So I came aboard to bless the cabin, engine room, freezer, and ship in general. Sometimes this is more to allay fears of people who are suspicious rather than religious. But we chaplains minister to everyone, not just Christians.  I was also able to offer them some trauma counselling.

How has COVID-19 changed your chaplaincy?

The pandemic has greatly curtailed what we can do. We can still email with people on ships who have internet access. We can still deliver little gifts—baked goods, toques [knit caps], mobile wifi units—and talk with crew members, but our visits are shorter, masked, and usually limited to the outer deck at the top of the gangway. I now go inside the ships only for a crisis or other exceptional need. I have to decipher pastoral needs very quickly.

Ships normally stay in port about three days, although sometimes they're stuck at anchor for weeks to wait for a berth. Crew of course still get paid, but it's really boring. In the early months of COVID-19, seafarers couldn't get off the ships. I've gotten emails like "Father, the captain won't allow us off the ship to buy stuff. Can you bring me…" Also, many crew members have had their contracts extended involuntarily. They get paid but don't know when they'll get to see their families again. Lack of shore leave and forced extended contracts create mental and physical health hazards. There've been more suicides in the last year.


Things you use every day—coffee, tea, bananas, prescription medicine, gasoline, computers—likely arrived in your country by ship. The US has 360 of the world's 6,000 ports. Read the essay "Holistic Thinking for Maritime Ministry" by Jason Zuidema, executive director of North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA). NAMMA is a member of International Christian Maritime Association. Consider including seafarers' concerns in congregational worship by using Sea Sunday resources and International Catholic Migration Commission's campaign against forced labor in the global fishing industry.