OAKLAND’S INTERNATIONAL MARITIME CENTER MINISTERS TO THE UNKNOWN SOLDIERS OF THE SEA
BY STAS MARGARONIS, RBTUS
Mariners around the world face a tougher life as a result of: piracy, stricter immigration laws, faster turn-around times by vessels keeping them on ships longer, and working conditions that may be good or bad. Organizations such as the Seamen’s Church Institute provide a home away from home for mundane, psychological, and spiritual needs.
In Northern California, the Bay Area Seafarer’s Services (BASS) and The International Maritime Center (IMC) merged with the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) based in New York in 2009 to establish a national mariners service organization.
At the Port of Oakland, IMC directly assisted 6,000 seafarers and visited vessels carrying 40,000 crew members last year. SCI’s International Maritime Center was recognized as one of the best 6 seafarer centers in the world for 2011 by the International Seafarers’ Welfare Awards Program.
In September 2012, the Seamen’s Church Institute released its report, “The Psychological Impact of Piracy on Seafarers”, in cooperation with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. The report highlighted the growing threats and stress seafarers face from the mostly Somalian pirate attacks directed at ships and crews sailing through the Indian Ocean. While seafarers traveling across the Pacific don’t face the same threat, the report points to the vulnerability of mariners who work on ships and do so at great risk.
Most vessels visiting the Port of Oakland are container ships traveling from Los Angeles/Long Beach to Oakland before heading to Asia, or arriving from Asia and stopping in Oakland before going to Los Angeles/Long Beach. Other vessels visit Portland and Seattle.
IMC provides transportation from vessels to the IMC and/or to shops for seafarers to buy toiletries, snacks, and other necessities; and to stores to purchase the latest in technology, such as laptops. Many sailors own laptops and use them to communicate back home via Skype phone, Facebook and email. “Sometimes when I walk by them I hear the laughter of children or even the crow of a rooster,” says the IMC’s director, Adrienne Yee, who has been a driving force for better services for seafarers and is currently supported by twenty-five volunteers.
Seafarers do not have internet access on board ship because the satellite system used by the owners is too expensive. Crew members primarily come from the Philippines, and Eastern European countries including Croatia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Poland; but also Greece, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Tanzania.
IMC also sends chaplains on board ships to provide outreach to seafarers who are unable to go ashore due to work schedules. Crew get off the ships and take a shuttle to the security gates where the shuttle driver or security guard will call IMC requesting further transportation. IMC brings them to the Center or takes them shopping at Target and Best Buy. Best Buy is very popular with seafarers because they desire the latest laptops and phones for communication.
Yee spoke about her background and IMC’s mission:
“After graduating College, I went to work for the Chevron Corporation at their corporate headquarters in San Francisco where I worked in the Treasury Department. Our division handled paying vendors, crew members, vessel expenses, money transfers etc. I worked there for sixteen years but then decided I needed a change. In 1996, I wanted to go to sea. I needed more training so I went to the Cruise Career Training Institute in Florida.”
She says she “landed my first shipboard position as a Purser on a chartered vessel for four months. I then went to work on The Institute for Shipboard Education’s (ISE) ship which runs the Semester at Sea program. This is a program where over six hundred students travel to as many as ten ports around the world for three months studying liberal arts subjects.”
In 2005 while serving on an ISE ship sailing between Vancouver and Korea, her vessel was hit by a sixty foot rogue wave which knocked out engines and navigational systems. The ship floated aimlessly for seven hours before the engine room staff was able to start one of the ship’s engines:
“Water came in and shorted out much of the electronics including the navigational system and all four engines. Without power, the ship bobbed helplessly in the ocean. I looked out my port hole to see the ship listing back and forth. . It was a very scary feeling and continued for seven hours. We were ordered to don life jackets and sit together in the common areas of the vessel so no one was isolated. Fortunately, the chief engineer came to the rescue. Under very challenging circumstances he got one of the engines started and we began to make headway. The Coast Guard appeared and U.S. Navy fighters flew overhead to ascertain our condition. Company executives conferred with the Captain and decided that we should proceed to the closest port, Hawaii. Our vessel underwent repairs in Hawaii and the academic program continued on board the vessel. “
Then in 2006, and after eight years of sea life, Yee decided it was “ time to get my land legs back…. In 2008, I returned, once again, to the Bay Area where I began volunteering at the IMC in the Port of Oakland. Then in 2009 when the merger occurred I was hired by SCI as Bay Area Development Coordinator, and in 2011, I became the Director at the IMC. “
Why did she leave a job at Chevron to go out to sea? “Working here gives me contact with seafarers and maintains my ties to the sea. It was passion driven … something I had always dreamed about as a young child ever since watching “Love Boat” on television. Fate led me to the seas and to where I am today…”
Ship’s agents do a lot of work helping seafarers who get sick, need to go home or have other problems, she says. Working with agents, placed her in touch with an unusual ship agent:
“ While I was sailing with Semester at Sea, the Institute chartered a ship that had been arrested in Long Beach, and a few years later acquired the ship . Three years later when I first started working at the IMC, I got a call from a ship agent. We got on to the subject of this ship and how this agent was taking care of the arrest logistics and overseeing the ship while she was sitting idle in Long Beach. It turned out that this was the ship ISE had acquired and the agent was Bill Nickson, Regional Manager and Agent for Transmarine Navigation.
Bill became a big supporter of the Center and has helped me with contacts in the Northern California maritime industry. Bill has been a great help and once you have Bill on your side all sorts of people come out to help you. Bill and I sit on the board of the Propeller Club of Northern California, for example, and every time I see him at some event he’s always putting me in contact with somebody else.”
Like a lot of other charities IMC is feeling the effects of cutbacks on services to mariners:” Our budget was $200,000 and fund-raising is a full-time occupation for us. Also, with regards to the budget for 2011, SCI had two full-time employees at the Center. I am now SCI’s only full-time employee at the IMC.”
Nationally, SCI has a number of generous donors and corporate sponsors. Since merging with SCI-New York & New Jersey, SCI-Bay Area has received support from companies in the maritime industry, from churches and individuals, and recently received sponsorships from Chevron Shipping Company and the San Francisco Bar Pilots. IMC’a annual October fundraiser is sponsored in part by Hornblower Cruises & Events.