Mission chaplains

Mission services are carried out by our global network of port chaplains.To find out more about our chaplains in our new series of interviews, click on one of the links below.

The Revd Brian Millson (Antwerp)
The Revd Des Vaubell (Durban)
The Revd Antonio Luis (Suape)
The Revd Simon Davies (Felixstowe)

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The Revd Brian Millson, Antwerp, Belgium

Des is the Mission's port chaplain in Antwerp, Belgium. To find out more about his work, read on.

What’s the port of Antwerp like?

Antwerp’s a very busy, well organised port with a full range of different types of ships. It’s the second-busiest port in Europe, after Rotterdam.

What’s the Mission centre like?

We run an ecumenical centre, so in addition to myself, we have a chaplain from the Sailors’ Society, two from the Apostleship of the Sea, and another chaplain from the Deutsche Seemannsmission, who also has students assisting him. There’s also a local presence from the Finnish and Swedish seafarers’ welfare organisations.

We’ve been operating with this sort of structure for around 40 years, so as a result we’re pretty well organised. We divide the port up by five, and we each cover our own area, which means we don’t duplicate work. It also means you have a pretty good idea of which ships you’re going to visit, which is really useful. We can track ships using AIS tools like Marine Traffic, and the and we can plan what language materials we bring with us – and sometimes it also helps you prepare for what kind of welcome you’re going to get on the gangway! Importantly, these tools can also tell you where a ship has been and where it’s off to next, so if any issues do arise, you know a bit about the ship’s history – and its future – straight away.

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And that allows you to co-ordinate work with other chaplains.

That’s true, locally with chaplains in Rotterdam and Vlissingen, then over in the UK in places like Tilbury and Felixstowe. It all helps, especially in cases that carry over.

There was one issue I dealt with recently where a seafarer from the Lebanon was being bullied by his captain. There was verbal abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse…he was even being ordered to massage his captain’s feet! He told me that he was homeless in the Lebanon, and had gone to sea for a roof over his head, but it came at a price.

But in instances like this, because you’re able to find out where the ship’s been and where it’s going, you can warn fellow chaplains to keep an eye on things, or you can refer them to the ITF.

Is the Mission well known within the community?

It is, yes, and Antwerp has a strong maritime tradition. As a result, we attract a lot of volunteers, and some have been helping us at the centre for 40 years!

The Mission in Antwerp is well connected to a local Anglican church, St Boniface, and several members of the Mission’s local committee are parishioners and the Vicar is Chairman. I am officially licenced as the Associate Priest to take services at the church, so I help out on a weekly basis, and it’s also a very good way to maintain an important connection with the church, the committee and the local community. Many members of the congregation have shipping connections too, which always helps.

The church is also important for fundraising and volunteers: that connection helps us attract new volunteers. It’s also important for fundraising, as many members of the St Boniface congregation want to help us, so they participate and help out with our events, such as our Christmas bazaar and our summer barbeque. The church connection has also been vital with getting settled in the area, and I’ve also been learning Dutch with my wife in my spare time.

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What goes on during a typical day?

I tend to spend four days a week ship visiting, with one day in the centre and Sundays at St Boniface and taking care of administrative issues that have arisen during the week or about to come up in the new week.

What part of your work gives you the most satisfaction?

Just being able to do something for someone that makes a difference to their lives, really. No matter how small an action it is, whether it’s bringing newspapers in someone’s native language, listening to them or helping them contact their loved ones. Early on when I was an Army chaplain, you would see people waiting at the phones, desperate to speak to their families, and on ships I’m constantly reminded of that, so being able to alleviate that need gives me satisfaction.

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The Revd Des Vaubell, Durban, South Africa

Des is the Mission's port chaplain in Durban, South Africa. To find out more about his work, read on.

What’s the port of Durban like?

Durban is the busiest port in Africa and one of the busiest in the Southern Hemisphere. We have around 55 berths which handle everything from cars, containers, crude oil and cruises. We also have a thriving repair and small ship building industry.

What’s the Mission centre in Durban like?

It has a small chapel, a well-used library, a shop carrying all the usual necessities, as well as curios, a bar, games room and a TV lounge. We also have gardens and two football pitches – it’s not unusual for seafarers to be seen with their shoes and socks off walking barefoot on the grass!

How did you join the Mission?

Our local Diocesan Bishop asked me to consider becoming the Durban Chaplain, and after I turned it down twice, he persuaded me to spend a day visiting ships. After that I was totally sold on the idea.

What does on during a typical day for the team?

A day in the harbour can take you from a luxury passenger vessel to a rust-bucket bulker with no air-conditioning, but the welcome on all ships is truly wonderful.

The staff is myself as chaplain, our chaplain emeritus, Fr Paul Noel, who takes care of hospital visiting and some of the chapel services at the centre, and our most necessary secretary, Aurora Marais, whom I have awarded the Victoria Cross, and the Purple Heart for bravery for being my secretary for 10 years!

The centre opens at 10, but we normally start at 8, taking care of admin and getting ready for a morning of ship visiting. We give out a lot of material on ships: newspapers from various countries; copies of The Sea; anything else they may need; as well as Bibles when requested. But most of all we are a pair of ears to listen to their stories and look for ways to minister into their situations.

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What problems do seafarers most typically come to you with?

A whole range of problems come our way, from unpaid wages, bad food and poor water, but I think one of the heartbreaking issues for me personally relates to piracy. Many of the ships are sailing north towards Somalia, and the crew members, who are scared, come to us for prayer. For some the fear is so great that they even try to break their contracts.

What part of your work gives you the most satisfaction?

Reaching the top of a long gangway, and seeing the smiling face of a seafarer who recognizes the Flying Angel badge on my uniform, and then sitting in the Mess with off duty officers and ratings is the most gratifying part of my work. When there is a problem, moving into action to find the right help is an added pleasure, so that when I leave the ship, I know I have achieved something good.

How has the Mission’s work in the area changed over the years?

With the advent of mechanisation, ships may be in and out in just a few hours. Where previously we could be on a ship for anything up to three hours, these days the average visit is about half an hour, so now we have to find new ways of helping seafarers to help themselves, which is why we give out so many materials, including Bible study CDs and DVDs. Another major change is communications. 10 years ago, our centre’s main source of income was the telephone. Then came the MtS phone card, and now it’s top-up vouchers for mobiles. These days there are very few seafarers without a laptop or tablet and our Wi-Fi gets a lot of use. I watched tears pouring down the face of a burly Russian seafarer as he watched his daughter dance around in front of their home webcam. It was a very moving experience. But even that is going to change, as shipping companies start to provide Wi-Fi on board.

Do you find it difficult to attract volunteers, or is the centre quite well known?

All our staff are paid: the centre is far from the residential Durban and is hard to access, which makes it difficult for volunteers. However, we are becoming more and more well-known. I’ve steadily raised our profile over the last seven years and now a number of local parishes use the Mission for quiet days or picnics.

How much fundraising work does the Durban centre do?

Our big fundraiser is our sponsored Golf Day in September, which we use to raise money for the Mission’s work in Southern Africa. It’s helped us raise over R250,000 over the years.

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The Revd Antonio Luis, Suape, Brazil

Antonio is the Mission's port chaplain in Suape, Brazil. To find out more about Antonio's ship-visiting work, read on.

What is the port of Suape like?

Suape port is making a great name for itself. It handles many types of ships and in 2012 it handled over 11 million tons of cargo. It’s getting bigger every year and now over 30,000 people work here.

What goes on during a typical day?

I spend a lot of my time visiting ships and spending time with seafarers. Ships are usually docked for around 20 hours, which isn’t a very long time. A lot of the operations work here is mechanized or automated, so sometimes crews do have some time to get off their ships for some outdoor activities but they generally don’t travel far.

I am building the Mission’s work out here from the ground up. I regularly meet staff at the port’s administration centre to help better build our relationships, and I also try to promote the Mission to the public, telling them what we do here and how we help those who need us.

Recently I had a meeting with the executive secretary of justice and human rights, Paulo Roberto Xavier de Moraes and the port’s director, Jorge Dias, to discuss how the Mission can better serve our seafarers.

The Revd Antonion Luis on a ship visit

What problems do seafarers most frequently come to you with?

There are many struggles that accompany the life of a seafarer. Being on a ship for long periods of time can have a large strain on your mental, emotional and spiritual health.  I help counsel the men and women who struggle with depression, suicide, spousal problems with the long distance relationship, financial worries.  

What part of your work gives you the most satisfaction?

Listening to the personal issues and struggles of seafarers, and helping them construct and develop a solution and a way to resolve it. 

How did you join the Mission?

Before I joined the Mission, I was co-ordinating pastoral work in the Pernambuco countryside and working for the government. The Mission approached me and wanted to help connect the Mission with the Anglican Church and the government. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was very excited to be given such a big opportunity to serve and help people who are often forgotten about. 

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The Revd Simon Davies, Felixstowe, UK

Simon is the Mission’s port chaplain in Felixstowe. To find out more about his work, read on.

What’s the port of Felixstowe like?

The port of Felixstowe handles approximately 40% of the UK’s containerised trade, which means that it deals with a lot of ships. They range from the smaller ‘feeder’ ships right up to the very large container carriers.

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What facilities do you have at the centre?

The Felixstowe centre has internet services, telephones, a bar and shop. We also offer leisure facilities, including a TV and a pool table, and for those who need some time to reflect, we have a chapel and a library. We also provide services in Ipswich and Harwich, where we have some seafarers’ cabins, which are unstaffed, but they have free internet facilities and are accessible 24 hours a day.

What services do seafarers use the most?

Internet provision is without doubt the most popular facility at our seafarers’ centre, whether that be through our WiFi service or on the computers we have set up for seafarers. They quite often use Facebook, Skype and e-mail  to keep in touch with their families. We’ve got some leisure facilities, such as a pool table and a bar, which are popular, and so is our shop, which stocks a range of souvenirs and treats.

How busy does it get?

The centre at Felixstowe can be very busy at times! It’s not unusual to see 20 or more seafarers present at the centre.  As with any port, it all depends on how many ships are in port at the time.  But on average the centre at Felixstowe is visited by over 1200 seafarers a month.

What goes on during a typical day? Do you fit in many ship visits?

A good deal of my time is spent visiting ships, and this may be at Felixstowe, Ipswich or Harwich. Because of short turn-around times in port, many seafarers do not have the opportunity to leave the vessel to visit the seafarers’ centre, so my role is to look out for the welfare of seafarers and to find out what their needs are.  The number of ships I visit in any one day depends on what happens on board. Sometimes my visits might be fairly short, with a brief chat with the crew member on watch at the gangway, but at other times I might be busy with a particular ship for two hours or more, sorting out various issues and speaking to groups.

What problems do seafarers most frequently come to you with?

Many seafarers want help and advice with practical issues, such as how to get in touch with their families, but when they’re given an opportunity, they will often speak of the challenges of their lives at sea. Most often, they talk about the effects that long periods of separation from their families have on their relationships, and that distance frequently causes stress, strain and unhappiness.

On other occasions, they talk about issues directly related to their work. Sometimes they want help and advice concerning an unfair contract of employment, which may have left them unpaid or kept on beyond their original contract term. Sometimes they speak of tensions on board within the crew.  Talking about such things on board is often considered “unsafe”, so they appreciate being able to share their concerns with someone who is neutral, and outside the ship’s hierarchy, who can help them.

What part of your work do you enjoy the most, or what part gives you the most satisfaction?

Helping seafarers in practical ways is very satisfying for me. Some ships make regular visits to our ports, and in these cases it is possible to build up better relationships with seafarers, which has proven to be mutually enriching.

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