Over one million seafarers operate container ships, tankers, and bulk carriers which help provide the critical logistical flow that keeps the world economies viable.

These men and women face piracy challenges, shore leave obstacles and at times difficult access to health care according to Reverend David Rider, president and executive director of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) based in New York City.

Resolving these issues falls on the shoulders of organizations such as SCI, which has worked for 180 years to help seafarers worldwide.

SCI also provides operational training for captains and crews of inland waterway vessels in the United States and works closely with Waterways Council Incorporated.

In a wide-ranging interview Rider noted:


Since 2007, piracy has become a growing threat to seafarers as a result of pirate attacks primarily originating from Somalia, East Africa and Nigeria,West Africa. With Somali pirates, there has been relatively little violence and once a ransom is paid, the crew and cargo are usually released. But with West African pirates, violence occurs more often against crew members and cargo is not always returned but rather sold on the black market: “Approximately, 4,000 seafarers have been held hostage by pirates and more than a dozen have been killed,” Rider says.

Ship owners now place armed guards on vessels transiting the two African coasts: “This is welcomed by a majority of mariners but creates complications to combating piracy due to the need for guard training and certification, defining the authority between captain and guards, and questions about whether armed guards are truly a deterrent.”

“One big assist,” Rider says, “is the presence of international naval ships that are helping to discourage attacks, but pirates have responded by utilizing mother ships to allow them to base attacks further out at sea which complicates the efforts of naval patrols.”

In 2013, SCI produced a report along with New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital considering the psychological effects of piracy on seafarers.  The study found that although seafarers are resilient, many have suffered some effects from their ordeal.  Effective therapies are available to address symptoms, but the stigmas associated with mental health care remain an obstacle to treatment. Seafarers are afraid of losing their jobs and shipowners may treat seafarers who have survived attacks “as damaged goods” and, therefore “too risky to hire after they have survived their ordeal.”

“A new documentary film, “STOLEN SEA”, tells an accurate story of the problems and threats”, he says.


Owners are obligated to ensure that seafarers have access to decent health care and can receive medical attention when their vessels arrive at port. Most health care issues are known sufficiently ahead of port arrival so that medical appointments can be kept, even if a vessel is only in port for 12 hours. Owners pay ship agents to maintain a database of qualified medical professionals and doctors to treat illnesses and ailments. The quality of health care is good but varies with location. For example, if the port is located in a less developed country the quality of medical care may not be as good as in a developed country. Ship agents are responsible for ensuring that qualified personnel are available when a seafarer arrives in port for medical attention.

There is a problem in allowing seafarers to keep their medical conditions confidential. Owners and captains may demand to know the medical problem and why a doctor’s appointment is necessary. For example, captains often want to know what the medical problem is before arranging a medical appointment and conflict may arise.

Other serious issues include hypertension and cardiovascular problems. These problems may be caused by the constant vibration and noise on a ship which prevents people from having a truly quiet environment.

Another problem is skin rashes.  Mariners are exposed to a number of solvents in the work place. Skin contact causes rashes and burns that require medical attention beyond what is available on the ship. Sexually transmitted diseases are another problem which can become serious if there is a delay in getting treatment.

A seafarers’ center in Hamburg is taking a pro-active role in providing medical attention and treatment for skin ailments. Duckdalben, in Hamburg is providing a role model for seafaring missions around the world by arranging for public health doctors to work with patients at their facility. This reduces the delays in getting to see a doctor. SCI is adapting some of their practices, including supporting a team of nurses and physicians to treat ailments. They work with a team of public health physicians: “Our center in Newark, New Jersey is adopting some of these practices and Oakland may follow.”


Shore leave has become more important for giving seafarers relief from long stays on ships because stays in port are very short, especially with container ships and the use of modern cargo-loading equipment. People need time off, job relief, but they don’t always get it.

Shore leave procedures have become more complicated since 9/11 because of the heightened security at ports and the need for identification and screening As a result “SCI can pick up some seafarers at the ship’s gangways and provide transportation going on shore leave. At other ports, security requires mariners be taken to a gate before they can be transported outside the terminal.” Different terminals have different security rules, but “major headway was made on the issue when Thad Allen, the former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant required that shore access be included in terminals security plans.”

Some countries have very tough shore policies and captains do not allow for shore leave except under exceptional circumstances. In these cases SCI tries to send chaplains to vessels to visit with crew members and assist with minimal shopping needs.

A second shore leave problem occurs at tanker and natural gas terminals where there are heightened security concerns about possible accidents or terrorist risk. Many terminal operators are reluctant to allow access through their terminals, further restricting the ability of seafarers to get off their ships.


SCI operates two training facilities to allow captains of inland waterways’ vessels and their crews to train and practice vessel operating skills. One facility is located in Houston, another in Paducah, Kentucky. The design of locks on U.S. rivers has not changed in decades. There is a limit to the number of barges that can go into a lock at any one time. Generally this means that the locks can accommodate a total of 15 barges: 5 barges long and 3 barges wide. This requires highly skilled personnel at the helm and sometimes there are accidents. The beam of a lock is about 115 feet and three barges wide allows for only 105 feet. The challenge in maneuvering barges is obvious.

Rider actively engages with the Waterways Council Inc., which represents tug and barge operators, terminal operators and shippers who want Congress to invest more money in modernizing the antiquated lock and dam system along the nation’s inland waterways.

SCI provides a fee service for training with bridge simulators at both sites. Two barge operators, Ingram and Kirby are major customers. The SCI provides qualification for Advanced Pilot House Management. There are chaplains who travel with tug and barge operators and provide support to crew members.

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