Lockdown loneliness

How coronavirus is leaving seafarers stranded far from their families

When cargo ship chief officer Taylan Simsek arrived at Leith port in Scotland last December, he was brimming with excitement and pride.

His wife had just WhatsApped him the scan photo of their baby from her appointment back at home in Turkey.

He showed off the photo to Sailors’ Society’s port chaplain Pauline Robertson, who visited the ship regularly to bring the crew treats from town and offer them any support they needed.

“Taylan was beaming from ear to ear,” Pauline remembers.

“He had just started his five-month contract, so he knew it was going to be tough being away at sea for most of his wife’s pregnancy, but he was thrilled at the thought of returning home in the spring, when his son was due.”

But as the winter weather started to lift, Taylan’s hopes of welcoming his baby into the world melted away with it.

Shipping was one of the first industries to be hit when coronavirus reared its head in China, the world’s largest exporting country, sending shockwaves around the world.

With lockdown, trade began to evaporate and hundreds of ship sailings were cancelled.

Travel restrictions and reduced airline operations left many of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers stranded on board ships when their contracts ended, unable to return home to their families.

Taylan was one of those affected. Seven weeks ago, he missed the birth of his son.

He and his wife named their baby Atlas, after the mythical Greek strongman, because they know the importance of staying strong when life gets tough.

“It’s a very hard time for us,” says Taylan, who is now off the coast of Algeria and hopes to get home in July.

“I’ve never stayed on board for nine months. I’m already very tired, physically and mentally. But my wife is more tired because of the baby and because of the environment, the virus, everything, she’s stressed, thinking too much, losing a lot of weight, and I’m thinking of them.”

"They just want to get home"

Back in Leith, Pauline’s been supporting several seafarers in the same position.

“It’s really hard,” she says. “A lot of them are struggling. They just want to get home.

“One seafarer told me that his flight home has been cancelled twice. It could be another two weeks before it’s rescheduled.

“They can’t wait to see their families, their suitcases are packed and they’re all geared up to go home – and suddenly it’s not happening.”

One of the seafarers she’s supporting, Steve*, doesn’t need a plane to get home because his family lives in Scotland, just 400 miles away from the supply ship he’s working on. But he still can’t see them because he’s not allowed to leave the port.

His contract was doubled from four weeks to eight because of the pandemic, and it’s come at the worst time for him and his family.

One of his daughters has lost her best friend to cancer; the other has lost her job due to coronavirus. His wife is a key worker, so he’s anxious about her safety, and his elderly mother has just been taken into hospital, but he can’t be by her side.

Pauline says: “They’re going through really tough times and they really need him; he wants to be with them more than anything. He’s desperate to give them a hug.”

The charity has launched mental health resources and a helpline, as well as supporting seafarers who are struggling to pay the bills because their income has been frozen by the pandemic.

Some of its chaplains’ operations around the world have been temporarily restricted by port closures during peaks of the pandemic. Pauline can’t currently board ships, but she can still run errands and shout to the crews from the dock. She says it makes a big difference to the disheartened seafarers.

"Steve says it makes his day to see me when he’s stuck there, not knowing what the future is going to be like,” she says.

“As a chaplain, I’m there to listen and to serve; to show empathy, and to be his hands and feet, posting letters to his family when he can’t get out of port."

*Steve’s name has been changed to maintain his privacy

We can only be there for seafarers like Taylan and Steve with your help. You can show your support by donating to our COVID-19 appeal.

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