The Rev. Mary Davisson (second from right) escorted officials from the Philippines Embassy on a McAllister tug to visit the Newlead Granadino. • Philippines Embassy photo

By Matthew Townsend

When problems with international shipping break into the headlines, they usually involve drama on the high seas or illegal trafficking. But many crises faced by the unseen people who keep international trade flowing are more mundane than pirate attacks or cocaine raids.

In a world of global trade, mechanical trouble can lead to miles of bureaucratic red tape, many hours of diplomatic negotiation, and months of isolation for crews who lack visas required to come ashore or might lose pay for abandoning ship.

For the crew of the Newlead Granadino, this prospect became a reality last Sept. 20, when the asphalt tanker suffered serious engine trouble near the Port of Baltimore and was deemed unfit to sail by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Granadino, which sails under the flag of Malta and is owned by Greece-based NewLead Holdings Ltd., had been chartered for another six months of service on June 23. Its 18-member crew, mostly from the Philippines, had been shipping bitumen to refineries in North America and the Caribbean.

With the Granadino unable to leave port, mechanical failure soon created a humanitarian crisis. When this happened, the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center (BISC) stepped in.

“I visited the vessel three times while she was at anchor, thanks to free rides on McAllister Towing tugboats and Maryland Pilot launches,” the Rev. Mary H.T. Davisson, port chaplain and executive director at the center, told TLC by email. “During those visits, we delivered donations ranging from snacks and toiletries to thermal underwear and warm hats, as well as care packages from the Filipino-American relatives of a crew member. Other donations were delivered on other occasions by McAllister or the Maryland Pilots.”

Davisson also helped bring representatives from the Philippines Embassy aboard.

Once the ship could dock near the center, six crew members were repatriated and garbage was removed. Davisson visited another three times and provided escort to a crew member’s relative, as required by port security. When the ship was moved to a dock in the Canton area of the port in mid-January, Davisson again met the crew as six more were repatriated.

“I’ve visited the remaining six on five occasions as of March 8,” she said. “Highlights have included escorting more visiting relatives on board, bringing ashes on Ash Wednesday, and escorting a Filipino-American trainee on board, who brought home-cooked food as well as lively conversation in Tagalog.”

Davisson said the remaining crew members, who are not allowed ashore at all, have welcomed her graciously and have repeatedly thanked the greater Baltimore community for its support. This support has included help from the International Transport Workers Federation, the Coast Guard, the Seafarers International Union, and churches. Emmanuel Episcopal provided rosaries for the crew, and the center’s ecumenical personnel collected toiletries and warm clothing.

Davisson grew up at Baltimore and studied at Virginia Theological Seminary. Bishop Robert Ilhoff asked the priest if she would visit vessels with the Rev. Ed Munro, the Episcopal deacon who founded the center, which is affiliated with the London-based Mission to Seafarers.

“I fell in love with the ministry because of the trust we experience from seafarers all over the world, the astounding dedication of BISC’s volunteers, and the gift of learning to trust each seafarer back to God as their vessels sailed away,” she said. In her work there, she visits several international crews every week. She offers welcome, free Bibles and magazines, and prayer, if desired. She can also provide legal and labor referrals on request.

“Volunteers working one or more shifts of five to nine hours weekly make similar visits,” she said. “Our most labor-intensive assistance is providing rides ashore for errands or worship, since only drivers with security training and badges can escort seafarers between the gangway and the terminal gate. In most cases, seafarers’ centers are the only option for free rides.”

Stranded vessels and routine visits are not her only concerns. As director of BISC and its only full-time employee, she trains and supervises the volunteers, ensuring that their credentials are up to date for the 14 terminals they serve. Working with the center’s board and treasurer, she helps maintain church-port relationships. She also helps raise the $220,000 needed annually by the nonprofit ministry. Vans go to and from the shop, and the restrooms must be stocked with supplies.

Because Davisson works as a chaplain to crews, she cannot reveal many private details about their situation or who they are. She emphasized, however, that missions to seafarers provide vital support to a population that almost always goes unseen.

“Seafarers are physically invisible because they spend nine months a year on the ocean. We literally don’t see them,” she said. “Then when they get to shore, security regulations generally prevent local citizens without special credentials from visiting. Moreover, when a multinational crew works on a vessel owned by a company in country A, flagged in country B, operated by a company based in country C, and sailing from Country D to E to F, it’s sometimes hard to know who if anyone will enforce their rights. There are often financial pressures to keep passing the buck when a problem arises, such as an expensive injury on the job.”

Davisson said that people can learn more about the lives of shipping crews by reading Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George and visiting the North American Maritime Ministry Associations website.

“Those who live in ports can consider volunteering, as many understaffed centers have to turn down multiple requests weekly from crews. And those who don’t live in ports can still contribute financially: let’s prevent any more centers from closing under the financial pressures caused by security regulations and other factors,” she said.

“Congregations can invite port chaplains and volunteers to preach or present at adult forums. Some seafarers’ centers are able to take interested visitors on board vessels. In many ports, the specifics of security rules preclude that, but the local seafarers’ center may offer an annual boat ride around their harbor or other educational event.”

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