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Tue 14 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Angel of mercy

Kat Slowe boards the charity boat M/V Flying Angel to explore the lives of Dubai seafarers.

Angel of mercy
Angel of mercy
Angel of mercy
Angel of mercy

Kat Slowe boards the charity boat M/V Flying Angel to explore the lives of Dubai seafarers.

"Thank you for spending a long time away from your family while sailing your ship from Japan to the UAE , bringing the real R2D2 that daddy ordered for my birthday," Dubai British School student Dylan Avelange writes, thanking seafarers, in a letter to the staff of the M/V Flying Angel.

The M/V Flying Angel is a boat that operates off the coast of Fujairah, which is owned by the Mission to Seafarers, formerly known as The Missions to Seamen. The charity was set up by the Anglican Church in 1856 to help seamen and currently operates in 230 ports worldwide.

The idea for the Flying Angel originated with reverend Stephen Miller, director of The Mission to Seafarers in Dubai, when he realised that with the increasingly fast turnaround time for ships at port, many seamen were receiving little to no shore leave. This is an even greater issue in the Middle East, due to its strict visa laws.

Though the Mission to Seafarers operates two centres in the UAE, in Dubai and Jebel Ali, many seamen are unable to visit them, as they remain stranded on their ships anchored offshore.

The reverend decided to address this problem by building a boat (The Flying Angel) that could visit the anchored ships in the port - the second largest in the world, with at least a hundred ships a day anchoring there and up to 3,000 sailors. Onboard the Flying Angel is a shop, internet, a phone, and a library of books and DVDs.

Alexi Trenouth, who works for the reverend, explains: "The difference here is that seafarers actually aren't coming onshore. Having a seafarer centre onshore, even though it is busy, is not actually serving the amount of seafarers that are coming. So Stephen two years ago hit on the idea of having a seafarers' centre that went out to the boats themselves - this is actually the first of its kind."

The Flying Angel goes out to sea seven days a week during daylight hours. It costs $750 a day to maintain, the majority of which it receives through corporate sponsorship. The day before Arabian Insight ventures out to sea, Trenouth says the boat's crew received calls from six boats - unfortunately, they could only visit four before they ran out of time.

"About 75 seafarers a day come aboard," Trenouth says. "It is getting much, much busier. They come abroad, they use the internet, they phone home and they buy things from the shop. They can get books and magazines.

"They basically just chat to the crew, just have that feeling of getting finally away from their boats, because I think some of the boats that they live on are pretty dire."d And the boat, as it receives its first load of passengers for the day, does look busy. Both the shop and library are packed with excited seamen, as they peruse the many items on sale. T-shirts hang from the walls next to phone cards, cigarettes, perfume and even Dubai souvenirs, such as miniature lit up statues of the Burj Al Arab. Surprisingly, on the first load, there are also two women in the party, wives of staff onboard. One couple, the captain and his wife, chat about life at sea.

"We have done already about four months," captain Gaudam Sant says. "We trade generally between the Middle East and the Far East, so we have been doing the long voyages and we rarely get to get out [of the ship]. We last got off, probably, about a month back... In most of the Middle Eastern boats you are not allowed to go out, because they are very finicky about the swine flu.

"With all the restrictions and all the security issues, they are not letting people ashore. They are not really very friendly with people going ashore. They generally try and pressurise the ships - they put on additional charges and they try to keep the crew on board."

Sant explains that as the majority of companies still do not have internet on their ships, being able to surf the web is also a luxury. While an official e-mail account is available to him, as the captain, it is not for personal use. And the crew is forced to receive the majority of its news via mobile phone texts.

But this, in itself, Sant says, is not entirely bad: "If you are sitting on land with all the pollution and the noise, and all the pressures, and the job losses, and the economic recession, and you switch on the news, you find all these people have lost their jobs.

"It is better here. You don't have any news. You don't have anything. You just keep getting everything through texts.

"You are happy, you know, because you are cut off. And when you finish you go back for about four months at a stretch. You work for four months and you go home for four months."

Sant's wife, Anintita, describes what it is like being a woman on the ship, something that she claims she enjoys, but has to be mentally prepared for.

"The thing is that you really have to be prepared mentally - otherwise it can be very difficult for a woman. If the ship is on a route that you know is not going to go soon to ports, you take your books and whatever work you want to do, and if you are well prepared, it is a good experience."

Women on the ship remain few in number. Only officers and engineers are able to bring their wives with them on a voyage, as there is not enough space for all the seamen to bring their partners. Still, few officers take advantage of this opportunity, as many have families back home with children, who may be attending school.

But it is not only the women on the ships who can feel isolated. Many seamen, as a result of language barriers, can also experience loneliness on an extended voyage. Due to a large mix of nationalities, the only way many seafarers can communicate is via pidgin English, which makes it difficult for them to express any serious problems they may be having."If something happens, if you are lonely, if you are depressed, you want to talk about it," Trenouth says, "but in pidgin English it is very difficult to communicate what you are feeling and that leads to the isolation, and the feeling of being completely alone.

"We don't want to really talk about it too much, but there are suicides. There are big problems. We came out the other day and [a ship] was requesting a priest to come out and bless the ship again, to take away the bad spirits that were on the ship, because of someone taking their life."

While many seafarers may enjoy life at sea, there are others who feel forced into the occupation by a need for money. The average Filipino seafarer supports twenty people back home. Upon his return to the Philippines his wage is usually gone within two days.

"If you have nothing and you know your uncle has just come back from sea, and has $4,000, you think ‘he can just spare bucks for my school books,'" Trenouth says. "And that's what the whole family thinks."

This is reflected in the words of another seafarer, Kevin, who later boards the Flying Angel. He is a cleaner on his ship and has not been onshore for two months.

"Do you like working on the ship?"

Arabian Insight asks.

"Really not," Kevin replies.

"So why do you do it?"

"To make some better money for my family," he says.

And it doesn't help that entertainment onboard is limited, which is why the Flying Angel's supplies of books and DVDs are so welcome. Many seamen resort to movies to keep themselves entertained, though others pursue more unusual activities to fend off boredom.

Surajya - whose name means ‘good king' in Hindi - is his ship's chief engineer. He spends his spare time walking across the deck and manages by doing this to traverse an incredible ten miles a day.

"I walk daily ten miles," he says. "I have got a metre. Today (he gets out his metre) I have already completed 11,460 steps. That means 4.9 miles that I completed this morning. In the evening I complete more. They all join in, in the evening, even the captain."

Surajya's ship has been at the Fujairah harbour for twenty days, waiting for its cargo shipment, which it will be taking to Japan. The crew have no idea how long this will take and it is not uncommon for ships to be waiting offshore for a matter of months to be contacted by their companies. The longest Surajya ever had to wait was in Dubai, near Port Rashid, back in 2002.

"I was stuck out there for four months, just waiting," he says. "The company didn't have any boat or anything."

Having visited three ships throughout the day, it is finally time to return to shore. The Flying Angel's shop is looking as depleted as everyone's energy reserves. But as we sail to harbour, Trenouth receives a call. Apparently, there is a ship at the dock, where the seafarers have been stranded without pay, unable to contact their company, for four months. Trenouth is determined to help and to contribute the day's donation from visitors ($70) to help them buy food. We discover the sailors walking along the side of the dock upon our return.

"How long have you been without pay?" Trenouth asks them.

"Four months," one replies.

"Do you have any food?" she says.

"Enough for four more days."

Alexi hands them the $70 to buy rations with and gives them her contact details, telling them she will speak of their situation to reverend Stephen. Without any money, the sailors are unable to return home. Though they are currently living at the company villa, by the dock, one of them has to stay with the ship at all times. They have no idea when, or if, their company will contact them.

"This is what the Mission to Seafarers is really here to do," Trenouth explains. "To help seafarers."

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