The Sailor Man in New York

Invisible seafarers in a city still addicted to shipping

In April, pirates commandeered the Alabama and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage in a lifeboat. One of President Obama's first mortal decisions as Commander in Chief was ordering Navy snipers to shoot Phillips's captors. Three were killed and one was captured (and is now here in New York, awaiting trial).

The Alabama went back into service and was attacked by pirates for a second time. This time, the crew was successful in keeping the pirates from boarding, using hired armed guards, sound cannons, and evasive maneuvers.

"They should let us have guns," says one of the Romanians, with a toothy smile and a gravelly voice. "We have military training."

No Marlon Brando here. Gantry cranes unload thousands of cargo 
containers a day.
Jackie Snow
No Marlon Brando here. Gantry cranes unload thousands of cargo containers a day.

"Yeah," says the other. "We'd shoot the bastards."

The Romanian seafarers vent about a very touchy issue in the shipping industry: whether or not to arm crews. It's easy to understand why these seafarers are for it. They spend months at sea, with just 20 people to defend a 1,000-foot ship carrying cargo worth millions. They can be attacked at any time by pirates wielding AK-47s or RPGs.

But the International Maritime Organization (IMO) discourages the arming of crews; most nations (including the United States) would never allow armed cargo ships in their ports. The IMO is also concerned about encouraging a pirate arms race when cargos can be so volatile. (Cargo ships can travel in convoys with military escorts through the Gulf of Aden and, under certain conditions, are allowed to have armed hired or military crews.)

The chaplains drop the Romanian seafarers off at Jersey Gardens, arranging for them to be picked up several hours later.

If only getting off the boat itself were so easy.

"The United States is the only major maritime nation that requires a visa for a seafarer to leave his ship in an American port," says Douglas Stevenson, a maritime attorney who works at the Seamen's Church Institute. But even with a visa, it can be tough for a worker with shore leave to get from a ship to the terminal gate.

In April, the Department of Homeland Security began requiring anyone in a port to be escorted by someone carrying a Transportation Worker Identification Credential card. Without a TWIC card, seafarers are allowed to leave their ship only a short distance to inspect it.

It's just a fraction of a mile from ship to gate, but ports don't miss a trick, and they can charge exorbitant fees to provide someone with a TWIC card to escort sailors on that short trip. So seafarers often spend their shore leave on the ship. (The APM Terminal is one of the few that provides a free shuttle.)

Being TWIC escorts is a big part of what the chaplains do, but it puts them in the awkward position of policing the people they're trying to counsel. "We're responsible for keeping people in our sight, and within 15 feet of us at all times," says Rinas. "If there's a problem, our organization can be fined $25,000, and I, personally, can be fined $25,000."

Back in the port, the two men finally make their way to the Osaka, which is being loaded up by a large crane. It lifts cargo containers a hundred feet into the air and deposits them on the Osaka in about 20 seconds. It's like watching one of the giant Transformer robots playing Tetris.

A round-faced Filipino seafarer in a bright orange jumpsuit approaches the chaplains. Despite the fact that there are about a million seagoing workers constantly traveling around the globe, this one immediately recognizes Rinas and calls him by name.

"What have you got for us?" the young seafarer asks.

The phone cards, magazines, and newspapers that Rinas offers are pretty standard. But what really makes the young man light up is the one international story the crew is more interested in than the Alabama: The Filipino welterweight Manny Pacquiao has just won his latest fight—and Rinas has brought the DVD.

The young man leads the others up a narrow gangplank to the deck of the Osaka, where a lone Filipino officer welcomes them aboard and leads them to the mess hall.

The crew soon swarms around to buy phone and SIM cards, while the young seafarer puts the Pacquiao fight on the TV. The group is pretty typical for a ship of this size: 15 Filipinos, two Bulgarians, one Georgian, a Russian first officer, and a Ukrainian captain. It's owned by a Japanese company, but the language of the ship is English.

While his partner sells the cards, Drege begins asking the crew about their voyage. How has it been going? How is the weather? Did you have to go through the Gulf of Aden?

This crew just came from the Panama Canal by way of Savannah. From here, they leave for a 28-day trip directly to China, where they'll turn around in a day and head straight back. As they get their cards, they scamper off quickly to call family members—it could be their last contact with home for a month.

The Russian first officer wanders into the mess hall. He boarded in Panama, and this is his maiden voyage as first officer. The conversation soon turns to pirates: He has crossed the Gulf of Aden 11 times, and doesn't think too much of it.

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