Serving seafarers in Europe’s largest port
By Dennis Woodward (Ry. 2012–15)
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly seven years since I left Ridley Hall. How time flies! My wife Aniek and I spent three happy years in Cambridge from 2012 to 2015, with our daughter Tessa born during my final year at college. Tessa’s now seven, and our son Thomas is three.
After a somewhat “colourful” curacy journey, we ended up back in the Netherlands, the country where we were born and raised. In the Autumn of 2017, I took up a position of Chaplain to the Port of Rotterdam working for the Anglican charity The Mission to Seafarers (MtS).
The Port of Rotterdam is Europe’s largest port, receiving 30,000 sea-going vessels per year. With the port 26 miles long, my congregation is spread across a large “parish”. But I like the rawness of port chaplaincy, as well as the missional model. I don’t expect people to come to me; I go to the people I feel called to serve.
MtS Port Chaplains and volunteers work in more than 200 ports across 50 countries worldwide, providing pastoral and spiritual support to seafarers. Becoming a seafarer provides people with great opportunities: to earn a decent wage, to discover the world and to work in a job where you’re making a real difference. However, it is also one of the world’s most dangerous occupations — piracy, shipwreck, abandonment and high work pressure are just some of the threats that seafarers face.
Seafarers continue to face additional challenges during the pandemic. Crew changes (going home or joining your ship) have become difficult, not to mention the restrictions on shore leave. Most shipping companies are not allowing their crews to disembark for fear of a crew member catching Covid-19 and spreading it onboard. This means many seafarers now have to stay onboard for the entire duration of their contract, ranging from 3 to 9+ months. I’ve met seafarers who celebrated two birthdays onboard and spent 15+ months in what they refer to as their “floating prison”.
These ongoing challenges can often lead to serious mental health issues. Sadly, I’ve noticed an increase of suicides amongst seafarers during the pandemic. I’ve led bereavement services onboard ships far too often for crew members who’ve died. It’s a privilege to do, but painful to witness.
It breaks my heart, but how much we owe seafarers! More than 90% of world trade is carried by sea, providing work to 1.9 million seafarers onboard 75,000 vessels. How different our lives would look if global trade stopped? We’d have no gadgets in our pockets, no food in our supermarkets, no cars to drive (and no fuel in those cars). . . It all arrives via sea. My heart goes out to seafarers. They are a forgotten group of people who work in an inhuman system that relentlessly runs day and night.
When I come onboard to visit them, I’m there as a pastor with a listening ear. It's a ministry of presence that has its roots in Jesus’ love for people. I have the privilege to pray for seafarers, to offer them a Bible, or sometimes even a SIM card, so they can be in contact with their loved ones back home. I listen to their stories, amidst the noise in the world of steel which surrounds us. The 24-hour economy never stops. Nor do the seafarers who serve us. They truly make the world go round. #ThankYouSeafarers #JesusLovesYou
The Revd Dennis Woodward
Rotterdam Port Chaplain
Learn more about The Mission to Seafarers
To find about more about Dennis' ministry, and particularly the impact of the pandemic on seafarers that he serves, you might also enjoy watching the interview below. The Revd Andy Chrich, who Dennis met through his placement in Trumpington while training for ordination at Ridley, interviews Dennis as a mission partner of his current church in Highbury, London.
The Guardian article mentioned in the interview can be read online: ‘One seafarer almost cried’: the last chaplain visiting quarantined boats.