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Remembering Our Seafarers – Then and Now

Fascinated by all things nautical, the drop-in centre run by the Mission to Seafarers caught my attention on my recent trip to Hobart. Established in 1856, this charity is still working in over 200 ports in 50 nations, catering to the needs of visiting merchant crew mainly from poor backgrounds from every nationality. But due to covid rules, the Hobart Mission was silent.

My curiosity piqued, I spoke to the team at the Mission in Sydney and discovered that for the past 18 months, many seafarers bringing goods to Australia have not been allowed to leave their ships. However, Mission to Seafarers has resourcefully found many ways of providing practical assistance directly to the ships.

Seafaring - One of the World’s Oldest and Most Dangerous Professions

Seafarers have been plying the world’s treacherous oceans for centuries making sure that we can receive essential and luxury goods. In Australia, over 90% of our fuel comes in via these Seafarers. For many crew, their work is a route out of poverty for them and their families. A Philippino seafarers wage, although often very low, is invariably used to provide fundamental support for up to 15 family members at home, so every dollar that can be saved during shore leave is precious.

Image: Sad news - with thanks to Odomankoma Maritime News Portal

Around since 1856, Mission to Seafarers still runs over 200 ‘homes away from home’ near Ports to help the Seafarers to reconnect and rejuvenate onshore, boosting their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing.

Seafaring during Lockdown

Image: Seafarers being vaccinated at Port Botany, Sydney and a grocery delivery.

With thanks Mission to Seafarers Sydney.

I was told the impact of the Coronavirus on seafarers over the past two years has been significant - and hidden. To keep them isolated from the disease, many have been unable to return to their families for up to 18 months and are still not allowed onshore. They are suffering from anxiety disorders and loneliness. Suicide rates are high.

The Sydney Mission Chaplains have permission to visit many of the vessels providing practical one-on-one conflict resolution, counselling, prayer support, compassion and goods. During the past two years, they have focused on:

· Opening Mobile Vaccination Stations - they have converted the Mission buses so that NSW Health could use them as mobile vaccination centres for up to 3 to 4 vessels a day;

· Delivering supplies to the isolated crews – Mission to Seafarers Sydney team of chaplains reached 8500 seafarers on 365 vessels last year. They might need a phone or a SIM card to call home or shoes to keep working;

· Gift Packs - they have distributed over 2000 gift packs mainly with goods provided by donors, including toiletries, toothpaste & toothbrushes, shampoo & shower gels, shavers, beanies, sunglasses, T-shirts, backpacks & cabin bags, novels & magazines, CDs, and food packs;

· Church services run by zoom for those who wish to attend but can’t leave their ships; and

· Helped to repatriate seafarers stranded in Sydney (that can be very tough if you need to return to China with their strict entry laws).

Seafaring in Napoleonic Times

Image: Napoleonic Seafarers with thanks to Historycal Roots.

In the past youths often as young as ten years old went to sea. British naval hero Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson started as a Captain’s servant at twelve years old. My ancestor, his stepson Josiah, was only thirteen when they fought against the French aboard Agamemnon, a battle which features in my debut novel Nelson’s Folly.

Image: Seafarers from a very different Agamemnon were in Port Botany last week (March 21, 2022) – the Mission to Seafarers bus is arriving to offer vaccinations.

To understand the conditions of crew in Napoleonic time it is important to distinguish between service on Merchant ships and the Royal Navy. Ships in the royal navy were akin to modern nuclear submarines. They were fighting vessels and carried large numbers of seamen whose job it was to "fight the ship" in skirmishes or sea battles. They were packed with crew and often at sea for very long periods of time. The conditions aboard for seamen depended on the quality and personality of the captain and other officers.

A good captain would motivate his men by providing them with incentives - reasonable food and drink, demanding but fair discipline, shares in prize money and the pride of being a member of a great battleship. Unfortunately the reverse was often the case. Insecure captains, overly diligent warrant officers and poor conditions could make this city of men hell on earth. In such conditions the men were controlled by fear of the lash. Many of the men were kidnapped from sea ports by press gangs. If they were experienced seamen this was bad enough but if they were landlubbers they were knocked into shape quickly and crudely. Many died in the process.

Children as young as eleven or twelve often made up part of the crew. Their fathers might see a career for them as officers and apprenticed them to a captain they might know. They too started at the very bottom of the ship. Living on the orlop deck below the water line they would be expected to undertake many of the duties of ordinary seamen and soon became proficient in climbing the masts in all weathers to raise or lower sails. In between times they were at school.

The crew of merchant ships were often former naval ratings. The crew on these vessels were much smaller than on fighting ships and the conditions were less demanding but they were similarly exposed to the dangers of life at sea - sickness, death by accident, attacks by ships of hostile nations, dictatorial captains and a lack of any regulatory system to protect them from exploitation. They were motivated by pay higher than that in the royal navy and sometimes a share in the profits of the voyage. If they were badly treated they would leave the ship in the first port of call and then they had to find another ship or starve. Organisations like the Mission to seamen, the predecessor of the Mission to Seafarers was there for them as it still is today.

Seafaring Today

In today's world the problems of seafarers have changed but the lack of multinational regulation and codes regulating conditions aboard there are still many cases of exploitation.

It is hard for us today to enter into this world. Today's world is shaped by different forces and as we look back we can be shocked and horrified by what we read and imagine. To people alive in those days survival was often the only way of life known to many. Survival develops resilience and a belief in luck and chance. This helped people to live their lives and even to enjoy those moments when they had a full stomach and a ration of grog. We don't achieve anything by deploring the past. We can do better by supporting organisations that make the life of today's seafarer more pleasant and in times of emergency, survivable.

More Respect Needed For Our Seafarers

The more that I have read about the merchant seamen and the navy in the Napoleonic era, the more fascinated I am by the lot of the average seaman of those times. They were brutal times and the chances of living to a ripe old age were poor. The ships have improved, the regulations have improved beyond recognition but even today Covid has exposed a dark secret – the lives of seafarers are often considered expendable.

Have you ever volunteered or experienced the work of Mission to Seafarers around the world? If so, please share your story in the comments or email me at

For more information on Mission to Seafarers Sydney see

Image: The author outside Mission to Seafarers Hobart.

If you enjoy stories about seafarers, have a read of Nelson’s Folly available in hard copy or on kindle at and other online book stores or at The Constant Reader Bookshop in Mosman and Crows Nest, Sydney Australia.

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