For seafarers docked in Oakland’s port, the International Maritime Center provides hospitality and guidance

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Crew members of the container ship Hatsu Courage unwind with a game of pool at the International Maritime Center.

Father Joseph Duong Phan makes regular visits to Best Buy and Target, but his most common destination by far is Victoria’s Secret.  He rarely goes inside the stores; instead he waits at the curb, parked in an eight-person van with the words “Apostleship of the Sea, Catholic Ministries for Seafarers,” printed on the side.

Father Phan, of the Catholic Church Diocese of Oakland, works out of the International Maritime Center, a non-profit, non-denominational recreational facility at the Port of Oakland run by the Seamen’s Church Institute, a national service organization for mariners.  The International Maritime Center (IMC), which has been at the Port of Oakland in some form since 1964, provides a variety of services for seafarers while they are in port, such as shuttling them to local shopping centers, selling them discounted phone cards, or helping wire money home—anything to make their lives easier.

Container ships can be at sea for more than three weeks—a typical trip across the Pacific takes 13 to 23 days depending on weather and the age of the ship—so crewmembers try to take advantage of their time on land by venturing away from port.  Without ready transportation or knowledge of the area, a simple trip to the store isn’t always easy. That’s where Father Phan and the IMC come in.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Father Phan’s van was sitting outside the Best Buy in Emeryville at the request of Jesus Malabanan and Cecero Rosell, two Filipino crewmembers aboard Hatsu Courage, a container ship that had just docked in the Port of Oakland. The selection of consumer goods in the US far outweigh the options many seamen find back home, and often at a much lower cost—sometimes as low as one-third the price. That’s ironic because many of the goods arrive here in containers carried on the very same ships that bring seamen like Malabanan and Rosell ashore.

Malabanan wasn’t shopping for anything in particular, but was eager to get away from the ship he has called home since mid-March when it departed from Manila, Philippines, his hometown.  Once inside the store, Malabanan made a beeline to the video game section and started playing an Xbox 360.  Rosell headed to the computer section where he began tapping away on an iPad.

 “I always go to Victoria Secret to get something for my wife,” said Malabanan, “but I already got her something when we docked in Los Angeles.”

Liber Mariusz, a Polish-born officer aboard Hatsu Courage, who had been waiting outside the Best Buy for a ride back to port, opened a Toys ‘R Us shopping bag full of toys.  “I had to buy some important equipment for my daughter,” Mariusz said.

Every port has a seafarer’s club like the IMC that offers services to mariners during their brief stops on land, which for container ships like Malabanan’s Hatsu Courage, range from six hours to one day.  Malabanan and his co-workers arrived at the Port of Oakland Tuesday morning around 6 am, and departed early Wednesday morning for Portland, Oregon.

According to Bob McKoon, facility director at the IMC, the center is “just trying to help our fellow man” by providing basic services that are hard to come by for seaman. In addition to providing rides to shopping centers, the IMC also gives sailors a place on land to use computers and phones to connect with family back home.  “Everyone gets in here and gets on Skype right away,” says McKoon.  “It’s really wonderful that they get the opportunity to see loved ones face-to-face.”

Aboard their ships, the seamen do have periodic access to email, but according to Malabanan, it is far from reliable. “It’s nice to come here and have a place where you know you’re going to be able to reach your family,” he said.

Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, mariners have been required to have a visa before being allowed off ship in foreign countries.  It is not uncommon for seamen to arrange lengthy work contracts at the last minute, making it impossible for them to obtain all necessary visas.  In these cases, Father Phan, McKoon, or one of a handful of IMC volunteers bring cell phones and laptops aboard ships for the sailors to use.

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Seamen use the computer room at the IMC to check email and video chat with family back home.

“They always have long shopping lists, and they always seem to need socks,” says McKoon, who often purchases necessary items to bring to stranded mariners.

For those with visas, the center is also a place to relax and socialize.  “They come here and get a break from the sea. You can see their demeanor change when they come here,” said Tess Benin-Currier, a volunteer at the IMC.  Before their trip to Best Buy, Malabanan and Rosell played a few games of pool, while others sang karaoke, played ping-pong, and surfed the web.  The center—with its collection of leisure activities—actually looks more like a daycare than a room full of rowdy sailors, a stereotype that no longer seems valid. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a drunken sailor,” said McKoon.

Although he used to see more female sailors, McKoon said that nearly all seafarers today are men.  He estimates that 70 percent are from the Philippines, while most of the others come from Eastern Europe. “The men are almost always family men trying hard to make some money to send back to their families,” said McKoon. “Most don’t have a family tradition of seafaring or a love of the sea. I’m still waiting for someone that’s read a Jack London book and is looking for adventure. It just doesn’t happen.”

 According to McKoon, most of the men view seafaring as a way of providing opportunity and stability for their families. “It is not difficult to find work in Poland,” said Mariusz, “but it is difficult to find the salary.”  The going rate for seamen on a 9-month contract with a container ship is approximately $1,200 a month, and $2,000 a month for officers.

Jesus Malabanan agrees. “It is possible to find work in the domestic shipping industry in the Philippines, but the pay doesn’t compare,” he said.  Still, he added, “It is hard. I miss my family and the work is harder than on land.”

Although the IMC has a religious foundation, they operate a non-denominational, service oriented organization.  The center was established at the Port of Oakland in 1964 when the Catholic Church Diocese of Oakland invested $1 million in a building to house it.  That building was demolished in 1990 as part of a port modernization effort.  As repayment, the Port of Oakland donated the temporary trailers and the land from which the International Maritime Center still operates.

Some seafarer clubs are funded and run by their housing port, but as ports face stiff competition, especially on the West coast, resources are increasingly scarce.  Most clubs, like the IMC, function as independent, volunteer-run organizations dependent on private donations, predominantly Episcopalian charities, grants, and community fundraisers.  According to McKoon, this model was not sustainable for the IMC and in 2009, the funding of the center was taken over by the East coast-based Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI).

SCI, an Episcopalian organization founded in 1834, cares for “the personal, profession, and spiritual needs of mariners around the world,” according to their website.  They operate facilities in New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Texas, and now with the IMC, California.

In addition to practical and logistical services, the center also provides spiritual and religious counseling as part of the Seamen’s Church Institute.  Father Joseph often goes aboard ships to hear confessions, offer the sacrament, and deliver mass to groups of 15 to 20 seamen who gather during lunch breaks.

Spiritual crises aside, life at sea for up to nine months at a time certainly takes it toll.  Mariusz, who has worked on ships for 15 years, said the work “is not for people with family. It is for single men,” noting he is on his second marriage.

“It is very difficult for them to be away from their family. There is a lot of loneliness,” said Father Phan.  “We try to bring the church to them, and try to provide hospitality.”

“Seamen are the most forgotten people in the world,” he added. “Ninety percent of the goods in the world move by the sea, but most people don’t know about seamen. We try to stand by them and remind them we do not forget.”

SCI- Bay Area’s International Maritime Center is hosting a Sunset Cruise fundraiser on October 6th. Contact Adrienne Yee at ayee@seamenschurch.org for more information. 

One Comment

  1. Catherine

    Great article, Adam! I would never have guessed that so many of the people coming into the Oakland port are Filipino…

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