“A best friend for five minutes”

A fatherly figure and “friend for five minutes” – Seafarers Mission manager Murray Smith. Photos: Bruce Barnard.

They wander down the gangplank, often forgotten. They’re invisible men, lonely men.

They’re merchant seamen, and when they land back on terra firma they walk straight into the arms of the flying angel.

Or in this case, a tall, lean, softly spoken ‘angel’ with a ZZ Top beard, a big heart and oodles of understanding and compassion.

“A lot of the guys are really missing their families after long periods at sea,” says Murray Smith, manager of the Mission to Seafarers. “Occasionally they will sit down with you and cry.”

Cry because of all sorts of family situations. The seamen just need to off-load, to share and have someone listen. 

Murray Wilson and his chorus of volunteer mission ‘angels’ are those ears. They will share and they will listen, and last month they gave comfort and support to an all-time record number of seamen through the Port of Tauranga.

“That’s 16,566 seafarers for the year ended October,” says Murray, “way over and above our best ever.” An extra 570-plus ships have brought another 1283 seamen, and more ships and bigger ships have brought with it a greater call on the mission’s services.

That’s both a blessing and a blight.

“We can’t carry on at 1600 or 1700 a month for a whole year with the current staffing levels and facilities,” says Murray. “It would put considerable strain and stress on the system.”

The Port of Tauranga told The Weekend Sun it is willing to discuss those problems and any proposal the mission might put it, because it believes the Seafarers’ Mission does a great job.

Port of Tauranga leases premises to the mission at a heavily discounted rental. Unlike many ports, they are accommodated on the port precinct, and the company provides free shuttle transport for crew from their ship to the mission.

The Mission to Seafarers has an address, but it’s beyond reach for most except those who need it most. Suite 2, Oceania House, 127 Hull Road is an austere, two-storey grey building just inside the security gates to the Port of Tauranga.

“Yeah, they’re basic facilities,” admits Murray. But after 50 days at sea, basic is a godsend for seamen, like 27-year-old fourth engineer Rolan Praveen Mathias.  

He sailed from New Zealand to Australia, onto Korea and then back without one day of shore leave.

“The mission looks after you,” says the native of Karnataka on the Arabian Sea on the south-west coast of India. He always wanted to go to sea, and never ever entertained the thought of a shore job. He speaks of “nice people, kind people, all over the world.”

The guardian flying angels operate in more than 100 ports around the world, supporting 1.5 million men and women who keep the high seas’ economy afloat.

And on any given Sunday, there can be 25 or 30 seamen sitting around in the Hull Street mission for the best part of an evening. “They’ll all be on their phones,” says Murray, “and you can’t hear yourself think – a good number of Filipinos, a good number of Chinese, a good number of Indians and the rest from everywhere.

“You’ll have the seaman’s mum calling out from the other side of the world. You can hear kids crying, dogs yapping and they’re going for it. Full, unbridled family sessions. It’s Sunday night at the mission.”

Suddenly, Murray is ‘a best friend for five minutes’.

“They’ll come to me with their phones and get me to say ‘hello’ to mum, the wife or the kids. I have never met them, but the seamen just want to share the moment, with anyone.

“Yes, I am a best friend for five minutes.” And the mission man will take that. “It’s quite moving, and quite brilliant.”

The seamen are considered big spenders by some at the local mall. Judging by the US dollars the mission converts to Kiwi currency, the seamen pump $500,000 into the Bayfair economy alone each year.

The mission’s free bus drops them off at the shopping precinct and they buy up multiple bags of fruit, wine, infant formula, chocolate, soap powder, meat and toiletries.

A seamen like Rolan Praveen Mathias earns US$2,400 a month for his six-month contract. Most of those dollars are for discretionary spending. “There are no expenses at sea,” he says. “We get everything - pay, food, accommodation.”

Often it’s money that draws men to sea. They earn money they couldn’t earn via a shore job, so their wages are making life so much better for so many people back home.

It can be a romantic notion that turned them to seafaring – the call of the sea. “They saw the sea for the first time when mum and dad took them on holiday to Goa as kids, and from that moment there was nothing else in life.”

At the mission, the seamen are provided with free Wifi. There are pool tables, they can top up their phones and there’s the shop selling soda, chips, chocolate and mementos. It’s also a sanctuary where they can escape the ship and where understanding and support is offered up free of charge.

There are also three chaplains on call to “deal with all the tricky stuff”.

Occasionally, the mission sees merchant seamen who are unhappy about conditions, thanks to captains who aren’t paying them sufficiently or a lack of adequate down time.

“Recently we were alerted to a problem aboard a ship in Australia,” says Murray. “By the time it berthed in Wellington, everyone was primed to go - Maritime NZ, Seafarers Union, The International Transport Federation, the works. They checked all the terms and conditions and it was coming up short. It was put right for the seamen.”

Some statistics put suicide amongst merchant seaman at three times higher than any other shore-based occupation, and there are claims life as a seafarer is more dangerous, harder, longer and dirtier than many other jobs.

“But most of our work is family situations – like family sickness. They just need to offload, to share.”

On a recent Sunday evening, at around 6.30pm on the ground floor at 127 Hull Road, just beyond those security gates - Tauranga’s own take on Checkpoint Charlie - the merchant seamen are gathering.

“By the time they left at 8.30pm, they were all hugs and handshakes and thank yous. They’d had a brilliant night and said so. In just two hours, we had become best mates.”

Hours later their ship would slip its moorings and head out through the cut.

“We may never see them again,” says Murray, “but it makes us feel that what we do is very worthwhile.”