Foreign mariners stuck aboard ships

Coal exports are once again soaring from the ports of Hampton Roads and Baltimore — those nearest the mines of Appalachia. 

Threading through the anchored bulk carriers waiting to load at the mouth of the Chesapeake last week, a Virginia pilot reminded me of how we saw this same traffic and more in the 1980’s. But there was a big difference then. 

Foreign mariners stuck aboard ships.

Before the implementation of TWIC and strict visa requirements for foreign mariners, it was common to see launches carrying seafarers to shore to enjoy the ports of call from colliers or other ships. I remember the Greek discos in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood as a place to drink Retsina and see people dancing traditional dances that mariners had brought to distant shores for centuries. But today, these mariners are virtually trapped by government regulations aboard the vessels they work on for up to 10 months at a time. 

I spoke with Rev. Mary Davisson the director of the Baltimore International Seafarers Center to find out what the deal is with these crews and how their lives have changed in the aftermath of TWIC regulations. She said that since most mariners can no longer get off a ship and walk to a bus stop or get a cab, they have no choice but to stay aboard. If they do have a visa and time off, they have to ask one of the seafarers’ aid organizations for a ride if they wish to go to church or shopping. The reason, in Baltimore, at least, she says, is that the terminals require TWIC escorts in order to get off the ship, and the service providers are too costly for the crewmen. These ride requests have jumped to dizzying levels. In 2008, before TWIC, the center’s vans logged 32,000 miles. The first year of TWIC, 2009, they travelled 40,000 miles. In 2010, after more private terminals ramped up their security, the vans put 48,000 miles on the odometer. “We obviously cannot sustain that rate of increase,” said Rev. Davisson. She and her volunteer staff visit most of the ships that call the Port of Baltimore bringing books, magazines, foreign language newspapers, toiletries, and a willing ear to listen and offer companionship to those who stay aboard. 

“A seafarer who talked to me for an hour last week said it well. “We do the business of the world. But we are nobody’s people” because, he said, the owner, the operator, the flag, the various crewmembers come from many different countries, and it feels to him as though no one’s government in particular is really looking out for him,” said Davisson. 

To those of you at work in ports across the country, consider contributing in one way or another to your local Seafarers Center. The need is great for volunteers who can navigate the terminals and lend an ear or give a ride or even knit a hat. The largest institution in North America is the Seamen’s Church Institute. 


About the author

Kathy Bergren Smith

Kathy Bergren Smith has been a correspondent with WorkBoat since 2002. She is also a writer and photographer for the Port of Baltimore Magazine covering shipping and port activities. Smith, also a noted commercial and fine art photographer, resides in Annapolis, Md.

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