From the Firth of Forth to the Indian Ocean


As summer holiday cruises become increasingly popular, two Open House contributors highlight the changing role of the church’s ministry to seafarers.  Honor looks at its history, and Alison at one chaplain’s journey from the Firth of Forth to the Indian Ocean.

People may hold up their hands in disgust at the drunken sailor, but to the question, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor?’  I would suggest one thing – give him better conditions.’

So wrote Peter Anson, one of the first members of the Catholic charity the Apostleship of the Sea (AoS), in 1936.  Since its foundation in Glasgow in 1920, concern for the conditions under which seafarers live and work has been at the core of the organisation’s ministry to seafarers of any nationality, race or belief.

Although less well organised than their Protestant counterparts, efforts to help seafarers had been undertaken from the late 19th century by various Catholic Seamen’s Missions at major ports throughout the world.  The Catholic Society of St Vincent de Paul (SSVP) visited ships as part of their ministry.  By the beginning of the 20th century, the SSVP had for some years been financially supporting a reading room for sailors in Glasgow, and in 1920 a small lay group sought to put this initiative on a more formal footing.  They named themselves the Apostleship of the Sea and defined their mission: ‘to promote the spiritual, moral and social development of seafarers’.  Two years later, Pope Pius XII blessed the ministry and encouraged its expansion.

The organisation quickly became international in scope.  By the early 1930s it had established 40 institutes and six hostels in various ports worldwide.  In 1927, in Normandy, the organisation held the first of what became a series of international conferences; in 1938 the AOS returned to its ‘home port’ of Glasgow, and the city accorded a warm welcome to the delegates of 20 countries by giving them a civic reception.

When first established, the work of the AoS centred on visiting ships and on the operation of hostels so that seafarers away from home had somewhere to stay.  But occasionally the Apostleship went a little further.  In August 1950 the Catholic Standard reported:

‘GLASGOW, birthplace of Soccer witnessed its strangest game the other day, when a team of Uruguayans met a team of Goans under Apostleship of the Sea auspices.  The teams were composed of Catholic members of the crews of two ships, and the Latin Americans made it safe and certain with a 10-0 win.  Novel touch.  Most of the Goans played in their bare feet.  The members of both teams wore scapulars’.

The work of the AoS has evolved in response to the changing nature of the shipping industry.  However, one feature has remained constant: the presence in port of a chaplain and volunteer ship visitors.  These individuals provide enormous support for seafarers who have been left stranded or injured and who are far from home.

In Aberdeen, the AoS Port Chaplain Doug Duncan supported the crew of the Malaviya Seven when the UK Maritime and Coast Guard Agency detained the vessel over unpaid wages to the crew.  This situation lasted for over a year during which time Doug and the people of Aberdeen rallied to help the stricken sailors.

Recently AoS Port Chaplain for Clydeport, Joe O’Donnell, has been visiting in hospital  Zlatko Kosack from Croatia. Zlatko was badly burned while working in a confined space on an oil tanker in Grangemouth.  It soon became clear that his body was rejecting the hospital food and, on hearing of this from Zlatkos’s wife Vesna, Joe arranged for her to use the cooking facilities at nearby St Mungo’s on a daily basis so that more appropriate food could be prepared.

An increasing problem face by AoS personnel is that of human trafficking and modern slavery, and the organisation is taking the lead in tackling trafficking and exploitation of fishermen.  Hundreds of thousands of people are smuggled and trafficked for forced labour on board fishing vessels.  Because the fishing vessels stay out at sea for long periods the victims find it difficult, if not impossible, to report their predicaments.  In Great Britain, the AoS works closely with the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the Santa Marta Group to identify and support victims of trafficking and exploitation in the fishing and shipping sectors.

In 2020 the AoS will celebrate 100 years with an international congress in the city of its birth, Glasgow.  A glance at the Port Chaplain Directory for 2018 shows how far the organisation has come in those years.  The Directory lists phone numbers and e-mail addresses of 216 port chaplains covering 314 ports in 57 countries.

Each year Catholic churches around the world celebrate Sea Sunday, the principle fundraising and awareness raising event in the AoS’s annual calendar.

Alison Clark writes: Around the time the Rohingya refugees were hitting the headlines, I discovered that the Reverend Tim Tunley had been off the coast of Bangladesh opposite Cox’s Bazar where the folk from Myanmar were encamped.

Tim is the Mission to Seafarers Chaplain to the Scottish Ports, employed by London and seconded to Scotland.  As a member of the Edinburgh Diocese of the Scottish Episcopal Church, he holds a licence to preach from the Bishop of Edinburgh.  He typically begins by asking his listeners to imagine that someone they love is a long way from home.  The most important gift you would wish for them would be a friend.  ‘And in the name of Jesus Christ we seek to be a friend to our seafarers along with our Roman Catholic colleagues working for the Apostleship of the Sea and those of the Sailors’ Society’.

The chaplaincy operates mostly around the Firth of Forth, supporting the crews of the cargo and cruise ships that come in.  In the last five years the volume of work has grown from 17 to 42 ships.  When they dock, Tim and his volunteers go on board, but vessels too large to go under the bridges anchor off Hound Point.  The chaplaincy then takes over the back room of a pub and runs a pop-up centre, seeing some 50 seafarers in a typical day.  ‘Wifi lets them contact families.  We give out phone cards, we listen, we do what a friend would do’.  Crews can be on year -long contracts working for 750 dollars a month, sometimes on their own and often in a confined space.  Tim and his colleagues pick up many welfare issues.

The friendship they offer is expressed in a typically Scottish way by the knitting of thousands of woolly hats gratefully received by the seafarers.  When asked what they cost, the reply is that they are ‘a gift of love from the people of Scotland’.  Some 9,000 hats have been distributed!

So how did Tim come to be on the MY Phoenix in the Indian Ocean?  The converted motor yacht belongs to Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a private charity working in Bangladesh to provide emergency medical care and assistance to Rohingya refugees fleeing from violence and persecution in Myanmar.  It helps co-ordinate first aid to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

At the point when Tim joined the eleven-strong crew to offer support, the job was to deliver aid supplies. However, he learned that they had so far rescued 55,000 people losing one in every hundred.  They had to be highly skilled and professional in situations where huge numbers could be trying to struggle onto the rescue dinghy at one time.  After receiving training in sea safety and trauma first aid, Tim flew to Sri Lanka, went straight to the port of Galle and was immediately thrown into helping load the Phoenix with 30 tonnes of aid for Cox’s Bazar.  They spent six days at sea before unloading at Chittagong but were unable to land because of the lack of liaison among the multiple agencies involved.  After waiting offshore in pirate waters with the ship on lock-down, they set off to Langkowie in Malaysia to pick up another cargo.  When this was delivered, Tim left the Phoenix and flew home from Bangladesh.

Would he do something like that again?  ‘My volunteers and trustees might have something to say if I were to disappear at the start of the cruise ship season but yes, I’d go tomorrow if I was given the chance.’

I was interested to hear that on board the MY Phoenix there was a copy of The Optician of Lampedusa, a moving account of how ordinary people’s lives were caught up in the migrant crisis.

Honor Hania is a retired librarian and Alison Clark worked for the Episcopal Diocese of Argyll and the Isles.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.