Greg Watts joins Daniel Mulcahy, a former detective and now Apostleship of the Sea chaplain, as he visits seafarers docked in Kent
As we walk towards Transwood, a modern blue and white Swedish cargo ship unloading huge rolls of paper in the number one berth in Sheerness, Kent, Daniel Mulcahy looks across the rippling waters of the Medway towards the distant cranes and warehouses of Thamesport and says: “You know, it’s a 50mile drive to get there.” Daniel is Apostleship of the Sea’s chaplain to the Medway ports and Dover. In his silver Vauxhall Zafira people carrier emblazoned with the Apostleship of the Sea logo on the door, he does his best to visit every cargo or container ship that arrives. Most days, he will go on board three or four.
“I don’t bother going on the ferries at Dover, as they are either French or British and they are in and out all the time. The needs are very limited and they have down time either here or in France,” he says.
“I focus on the three banana ships that come in each week and some of the cruise ships during the cruise season. I think this year there’s been about 160. But my main ministry is on the Medway.” Many of the seafarers he meets are from the Philippines or eastern Europe, and are often at sea for several months at a time. In many cases, poverty back home is the reason they endure such a tough and difficult life for low pay.
He tells me that the crew of one ship showed him a DVD of it in a storm in the North Sea. “It looked horrendous. There were massive waves battering the ship. When I asked one of the seafarers how they all slept, he said: ‘We didn’t sleep for three days. We strapped ourselves to the bunk.’” Like chaplains working in other areas, such as prisons or the Army, he talks about his role as simply being a presence. He likes to think that seafarers can turn to him when they are in port, which, with fast turnaround times nowadays, isn’t for long. He is also a permanent deacon in Whitstable in Kent, and he has a very strong sense of carrying out a ministry in the docks.
“A lot of what we do is pretty mundane and routine. You go on board and say hello. The crew know exactly who you are. They might not be Catholic, but they know you are there for them,” he explains.
“Our work is very practical. Seafarers might ask if I can take them shopping to the local town or help them contact home. Sometimes they might want a prayer card or rosary, or to talk to you about something in their life. I’ve never been refused entry to a ship. I’ve often been told that, look, we’re too busy.” Being at sea for long periods means that seafarers can lose touch with what’s going on in the world. So when Daniel goes on board, he takes summaries of the day’s news in different languages, which he has printed from a news web site.
Such is the reputation of the Apostleship of the Sea in the maritime industry that seafarers will often hand over cash to him and ask him to go to Western Union and send it to their families back home.
He says that if a seafarer is injured on a ship or taken to hospital, he might have to drop everything. “I once went to visit a Russian seafarer who was in hospital in Margate. He had been there for a couple of days and no one had spoken to him because of the language problem. So I arranged for an interpreting service we use to help.” He is assisted by a team of volunteer ship visitors from local parishes and he also works with the Mission to Seafarers chaplain.
Occasionally seafarers will ask for Mass to be said on board. Daniel has a list of priests in the Chatham deanery who have agreed to help out. Masses have to be short and because it might be months before seafarers see a priest again they don’t always follow the liturgical calendar.
We put on orange highvisibility jackets and hard hats and make our way along a metal walkway across the water and into the stern of the Transwood. Daniel introduces himself to a Filipino seafarer and, after signing in, we clamber up several steep flights of steps to the bridge on the ninth deck to meet the captain. “The captain is God on a ship,” says Daniel. The ship seems clean and tidy. I notice framed prints by Picasso and Van Gogh on the walls.
The captain, a Swede in his late 30s, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, seems happy to see us, and explains that the ship has a crew of 17, plus three cadets, and sails between Lubek, Zebrugge and Sheerness to Philadelphia and ports along the St Lawrence River in Canada. The journey normally takes seven to eight weeks.
Afterwards, Daniel tells me that Transwood is like a hotel compared to some of the ships he visits. “Some of the isolated jetties and berths attract the older ships. Some of these are not terribly well maintained. If you go on board a ship that is an old rust bucket, you can bet your bottom dollar that the crew are not going to be well looked after.” It’s not uncommon for seafarers to come to him with complaints about pay or conditions. “If there’s a dispute about wages, you have to be careful you are not seen as an antagonist. You need to take advice and you might have to get the International Transport Federation, the union, involved,” he explains.
Ships are sometimes detained, he adds. “We had one ship detained for a fortnight. The crew were quite happy because they were able to go to Stella Maris and use the free wifi. They were there until midnight talking to their families.” At the small Stella Maris centre inside Thamesport, the wall displays five clocks, showing the time in Moscow, Warsaw, Odessa, Manila and Mumbai. The centre includes a payphone, pool table, coffee machine and a selection of paperback books and videos. But for those who have laptops the main attraction is the free wi-fi facility. The information sheet Daniel gives them includes not just details of banks and shops but also the security code to the door so that they can come and go whenever they want.
Daniel became a port chaplain in 2004. “I was one of six people who joined as a chaplain. We all came from pastoral backgrounds, but lacked knowledge of the maritime industry. In the past, the Apostleship of the Sea attracted people with a good maritime background and experience but not necessarily with the inclination to reach out pastorally.” His training included an ecumenical chaplaincy course at Ushaw and a ship visiting course run by the Merchant Navy Welfare Board.
His unassuming personality and soft voice give no hint that before joining the Apostleship of the Sea he served as a police officer for 27 years. For much of that time he was a detective, working in the fraud squad and also the child protection unit. “I loved the fraud squad. I met people I wouldn’t have normally come across. All the villains had all the social graces, so there was no confrontation. They were arrested by appointment,” he says.
“Most of my time in fraud was spent going through paperwork. A lot of people I came across had been honest up to that point in their life. But they had got into financial difficulties and, in desperation, did something silly.” But he once found himself staring down the barrel of a shotgun when he went with a team of detectives to make an arrest. “It was very traumatic,” he recalls.
He admits he found working in child protection heartbreaking, and that he couldn’t have done it if his children had still been young.
As a port chaplain and deacon, his life has come full circle. After leaving school, he had felt called to the priesthood and went off and joined the Carmelites, but left when he felt it wasn’t for him. Although much of what he does is, as he says, mundane, he doesn’t see what he does as social work. When he goes on board a ship he is trying to bring Christ into the lives of those he meets.
We drive out of the port and take the A249 to Sittingbourne, crossing the Isle of Sheppey, a bleak, wild, flat-as-a-pancake marshland, dotted with electricity pylons. Daniel recalls the time a seafarer committed suicide on a ship.
“The parish priest in Sheerness agreed to celebrate Mass. The chief officer, who had discovered the body, was fine until after the Mass. When he started taking to me about what had happened, he broke down. I was concerned for him, so, as the ship was leaving that day for Antwerp, I emailed the port chaplain there and asked him to visit the ship.” Such is life for the man whose parish is the open sea.
The Apostleship of the Sea is an agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England, Wales and Scotland and is wholly reliant on voluntary donations to continue its work. To donate visit apostle shipofthesea.org.uk or send a cheque to AoS, Herald House, Lamb’s Passage, Bunhill Row, London EC1Y 8LE