By Nigel Tapp
The simple light brown brick house overlooks the Port of Bell Bay, in Tasmania’s north. On the outside it is nothing flash. It is when you get beyond the door that you realise why running the Bell Bay Seafarers’ Mission (BBSM) has been a labour of love for more than 20 years for several members of the local Uniting Church congregation.
The mission began as a combined church venture in 1989 between the UCA, the Anglican Mission to Seafarers and the Catholic Apostleship of the Sea. It owes its continued operation to about 10 loyal volunteers, many of whom are from the Uniting Church. It opens its arms to all seafarers who arrive at the port.
As well as the churches, the mission is supported, both financially and in-kind, by the International Transport Federation, the Australian Maritime Welfare Society and Tasports, which supplies the building at a peppercorn rental and provides much needed maintenance.
These days about 15 ships a month dock in the port, whereas a few years ago a new vessel arrived virtually every day.
The Hong Kong flagged Sheng Mu had just docked to pick up manganese and sinter when I arrived at the mission with co-ordinator Garry Jones on a warm February evening.
Already about six Chinese seamen and their Bangladeshi captain, Mohammad Haque, were making good use of the wireless internet connection to communicate with their families, or wiping off some excess energy with a game of basketball.
There was little time to waste for crew members. Capt Haque pointed out that in two days the ship would set sail for Egypt, meaning 32 days at sea without the opportunity to communicate with family. Mr Jones said the advent of wireless internet had been a godsend for the mission as it allowed seafarers to connect with family even when the building was closed.
For those without an internet ready device, phone cards are sold by the mission and there are telephones both inside and outside the building allowing for 24-hour communication with loved ones.
Capt Haque, a veteran of 32 years at sea, said missions such as Bell Bay were important to his crew.
“There are not many facilities close to the port. The people here are (also) very nice,” Capt Haque said, mentioning that he had last been at Bell Bay nine months ago.
Capt Haque was quick to arrange a trip into George Town with Mr Jones for some personal shopping for the following day.
“We open between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. each day but no one has told Garry,” committee treasurer and Uniting Church stalwart Beryl Osborne laughed.
Whether it is taking seafarers shopping or sightseeing, making sure they can get some local currency or simply listening to his clients’ work or family troubles, Mr Jones said he got a real kick out of his volunteer role.
“I always believe that you should want to help people,” he said.
Sometimes the requests are a little out of the usual, but every effort is made to accommodate the sailors’ wishes nonetheless.
“One time a group of Canadians wanted to play golf on Boxing Day and take photographs because that was something they had never done at home as it would be snowing,” Mr Jones recalled.
Like many such missions, the BBSM runs on a very tight budget. Apart from the annual soup and sandwich luncheon and the occasional raffle or garage sale, Mrs Osborne explained that the sale of phone cards and income from the small shop selling souvenirs, toiletries, fishing gear, grocery items, soft drinks and confectionery kept the BBSM afloat.
“I don’t worry about the money. I leave that to Beryl,” Mr Jones said with a grin.
Mrs Osborne said Bibles, rosaries, books and beanies were given to seafarers according to their needs or requests. If a seafarer does not have enough money to contact his family a phone card is willingly provided by the mission.
A lay volunteer liaises with the churches to provide services for mass/worship as required with services conducted on board ships or in the Mission’s small chapel.
Mrs Osborne said she also loved her work with the mission.
“Those of us who support the work of the mission find it very rewarding and our work is appreciated by the visiting seafarers some of whom say we are the best little mission they have visited,” she said.
“I hope the work will continue while the Port of Bell Bay operates.”