The Sailor Man in New York

Invisible seafarers in a city still addicted to shipping

Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the Maersk Alabama has just been attacked by pirates. Again.

Cargo ships are attacked somewhere in the world just about every day. But this is the same Maersk Alabama that had become the symbol for modern piracy last spring when its captain and crew were captured and then rescued in a daring raid.

Half a world away, the 1,000-foot-long cargo container Hanjin Osaka has just pulled into the APM Terminal in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. The terminal is a mini-city unto itself, full of building-size machines and cargo containers stacked so high, they make 18-wheelers look like Matchbox toys.

Pastor Marsh Luther Drege drowns in some of the 2,000 “Christmas at Sea” gift bags SIH will give away to seafarers.
Jackie Snow
Pastor Marsh Luther Drege drowns in some of the 2,000 “Christmas at Sea” gift bags SIH will give away to seafarers.
Retired seafarer Murray Barr has volunteered at SIH for 45 years.
Jackie Snow
Retired seafarer Murray Barr has volunteered at SIH for 45 years.

Pastor Marsh Luther Drege and Port Chaplain Joshua Rinas, of the Seafarers & International House (SIH) near Union Square, have just arrived at the terminal's gate. They're here to visit the seafarers of the Osaka, but, like many people in port, their minds seem thousands of miles away, on the Alabama.

For a couple of Lutheran missionaries, their work doesn't involve a great deal of Jesus talk. The two are loaded down not with Bibles, but with cell phones: "We sell seafarers phone cards and SIM cards at cost," says Drege. "For all the wonders of technology, seafarers can go weeks, or months, without getting to talk to their families."

"We'll drive them to the mall, if they want, or to a Western Union," says Rinas, a recent graduate from Yale who is working as a chaplain for the first time.

So after months at sea, what's the one place that men who work at sea (and they are almost all men) want to go when a minister offers them a lift?

"Victoria's Secret," says Drege. It's not so much about the underwear, he swears, as it is the "prestige for their wives or girlfriends getting to walk around Manila with a shopping bag from there."

This image—of a married Filipino seaman having, at most, a couple hours' shore leave and trying to squeeze in a money transfer as well as a trip to the mall—says as much as anything about how the shipping industry has changed in New York.

And SIH, the last boarding house for sailors in the city, has had to adapt to meet seafarers' needs, even if it means going to Jersey.

New York, whose growth has been tied to the shipping trade since it was New Amsterdam, is more reliant on it than ever. Like most Americans, New Yorkers don't really manufacture anything, and we rely on ships to deliver 90 percent of what we purchase. Pretty much everything we eat, drink, wear, or touch comes off a ship.

Long before Chelsea Piers was a sporting complex and the South Street Seaport a mall, the city was lined with active piers. The city's residents were amply employed by the shipping trade, but containerization needed more land than would ever be available in the city: Massive ports sprouted in Elizabeth and Newark, and ships disappeared from the city. Efficient cranes replaced longshoremen, and the time in port for ships shrank from about a week to about a day.

"The technology changed the geography," says William Fensterer, a chaplain who has been with SIH almost since its new building opened in 1964. "It doesn't look like On the Waterfront anymore," he adds. When he started out, he says, he would wander on foot from pier to pier in Manhattan and Brooklyn and board ships, with nary a guard in site. But those piers have largely vanished.

And along with them, the seafarer, once ubiquitous in New York, has become invisible.

"We want them to know we see them," says Drege, the executive director of SIH, which originated as an immigrants' house in 1873 by the Church of Sweden. The region was once abundant with such boarding houses, founded by churches in Northern European sailors' home countries. Back then, sailors would find themselves in port for weeks between jobs, often with pockets full of cash and an inability to speak the language. The missions wanted to help these sailors (and steer their money toward a boarding room with a Bible, and away from bars and prostitutes).

Today, SIH is the only one left. For retired seafarers anchored here, it's the only home on land they've ever known. For active seamen, it can be the last line of defense against homelessness.

But it's only American seafarers who use the lodging now. International workers don't find themselves in New York between contracts, and they don't get much shore leave at all. And they're not likely to be either European or Lutheran. Most are Filipino Catholics, with barely enough free time to spend a few hours off the boat.

SIH has adapted to the times: Drege and Rinas make their visit to the Osaka to meet seafarers where they are.

At least that's the plan, until they find two Romanian workers at the terminal gate, looking for a ride to the Jersey Gardens Mall. The chaplains tell them to hop in.

Drege asks the Romanians about their voyage, but the conversation quickly turns to today's news on the Alabama.

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