March 4, 2019
Article by
Rev Un Tay

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Trauma at sea: who looks after the crew?

 

THOUGH IT MAY SEEM PIRACY, rough seas, fatal accidents and illness are things of movies aboard ships, the dangers seafarers face are real. The job carries as much risk as a vessel carries cargo. No truer than when port Botany received a tragic call last month from an incoming vessel. Following the ship's visit to an Asian port, a seafarer complained of body pain. The man took to bed rest and when seemingly recovered, resumed duties on the vessel. However, in a series of unfortunate events, the seafarer collapsed on the job and died in the arms of two crewmates. despite receiving immediate medical attention. When fatalities occur on a vessel. each instance is unique as to where, why, and how far the vessel is from its destination. In previous cases. crew have had to store bodies of the deceased in the cold room of the vessel until reaching port. just as it was for this most recent death. The seafarer's body remained in the cold room for 10 days before arriving at Port Botany. Once docked, port authority personnel met the ship along with a ship's agent, diplomats from the seafarer's central embassy, Mission to Seafarers chaplain Jim Watt, and numerous other authorities Who removed the body and began questioning the crew before the vessel had to leave the fully-occupied port. The crew drifted outside the port for a few more days, the same crew that spent ten long days in the same vessel as the body of one of their own. The body was soon repatriated to family.

All in all, the seafarer's body travelled by sea, land and air before returning home. Yet a question still lingered in the salty air. Who eases the crew's trauma in the wake of a sudden death on board?

 

SAFE HAVEN FOR SEAFARERS

MTS Sydney has been a haven for seafarers after long voyages, providing Wi-Fi, SIM cards, transportation between city centre and ports, computers, and a place to lounge between shifts. But in times of crisis, MTS has proved more vital than a place for seafarer down-time. "We provide pastoral care, pastoral counselling and other welfare services," MTS assistant minister Reverend Un Tay said. MTS takes every opportunity to increase the comfort of seafarers, including meeting incoming vessels at the ports. When the vessel finally came alongside, MTS was ready. "We went to pick them up." Rev Tay said. "They bought some of the discounted tickets [offered by MTS) like the Aquarium, Madame Tussauds and the [Darling Harbour] Wildlife Park. They had a wonderful time unwinding and forgetting some Of what happened on board." As one can imagine, it's difficult to forget the death of someone you work closely with. One crew member, deeply affected by the death, had to leave his duties. Rev Tay spoke about the importance of the MTS staffs availability to the Crew during difficult times. The staff visit upwards of six vessels a day. "We tell them that we are here for them," Rev Tay said. "Sometimes they just need to voice the experience and the opportunity to vent." A valuable item MTS staff brings aboard is the prepaid SIM card. Step into the shoes Of the seafarer's family, Who have little contact with the seafarer. but who have maybe heard of a fatality on board a ship. "Sometimes accidents happen and they want to call their loved ones," Rev Tay said. In the event a seafarer is hospitalised, MTS, notified by AMSA or port agents, prioritises paying a visit as strange location and language barriers can be as distressing as the reason for hospitalisation. Rev Tay said one of the remarkable things about MTS staff is that some are multilingual. Rev Tay himself speaks six languages, providing comfort and familiarity after trauma. Six months ago, Port Botany saw another seafarer death that rocked the crew to their core. "The atmosphere was so depressing," the reverend recounted. "The crew had no appetite to eat. I spent an hour in silence. After an hour or so, they started to open up." The captain personally requested Rev Tay lead a prayer session on board.

 

HIGH RISK ON HIGH SEAS

Seafaring is a life of solitude, a job with dangers and harsh realities lurking not just in the water. "Seafarers commit suicide due to depression. Heart attacks and accidents are always very traumatic and, of course, depending on what part of the world they are sailing, piracy," Rev Tay said. There is a deep-rooted, stereotyped image of a seafarer that has changed little over time. A big, bearded man, singing sea songs and drinking port is the seafarer. A man who says, "Send me to the sea when my days are done! For I belong to that which I travel," is the seafarer. That is fantasy. The seafarer is a working man or woman, who like anyone in a high-risk occupation can be traumatised by the dangers of their job. But rest assured, seafaring people, when ship comes to port, MTS will be waiting.

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