Deacon Michael Ho is an associate chaplain with the Apostleship of the Sea in Toronto, where he ministers to the seafarers far from home. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Ministering to seafarers is often a bumpy ride

  • April 22, 2012

TORONTO - Michael Ho quickly learned it takes more than prayer to be a deacon with the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS).

Aside from sharing the sacraments Ho, along with his international colleagues, delivers word on human rights, dignity and equality while comforting those enduring the hardships of a life at sea.

As an associate chaplain with AOS, which began providing ministerial services to sailors in 1899 out of Scotland, Ho’s formal function is to offer communion, hear confessions and arrange Masses for those he calls the Salties. While Ho calls these tasks his primary responsibility, the 64-year-old deacon does not always go home after saying amen with the seafarers — in fact some days he never says it at all.

“It depends on their needs, if they want to talk more, if they have more grievances to express and so on, I stay,” said Ho, who’s been with the ministry since 2003, one year before he finished formation as a deacon in the archdiocese of Toronto.

“Some of them get underpaid, late pays and some of them even get abused by the officers. As a chaplain we will contact the chaplain at his next port of call in order to follow up with the case.”

Although standardized minimum wages, working conditions and employee rights have been established by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) trade union, many shipping companies still don’t adhere to these policies. This can be done by flying a flag from one of the 29 countries that do not recognize the ITF or by simply throwing the guidelines overboard upon departure.

While driving to one of the four Toronto area ports Ho ministers at, the Sugar Dock which expects 30 ships during this year’s nine-month season, he recalled the words of a Filipino sailor he’d spoken to in the past.

“I’m going home now but the company still owes me one-and-a-half months’ pay,” he said.

All Ho could do was give the man advice and encourage him to immediately contact the agency that arranged his contract. Once sailors return home, contact with foreign chaplains like Ho dwindles causing a frustrating lack of conclusion.

Sailors use local agencies to find work contracts, which range from a few months to a full year, with shipping companies stationed in more industrialized regions of the world. This makes the battle for justice challenging to sailors who normally lack the skills, resources and ability to engage in an international lawsuit when they are shortchanged by their employers — something well known across the industry, said Ho.

Too often the sailors are their own worst enemies in these battles as many remain tight lipped about their struggles.

“They are very careful with private information,” said Ho. “Even among colleagues they may not have 100-per-cent trust.”

Often sailors do not open up until Ho gets them to the club house, which is owned, operated and shared by the Anglican’s Flying Angel Club. Here seafarers can read Bibles in their native language, purchase calling cards to use the phones and access Internet free of charge — all in an attempt to make them feel a little closer to their very distant home. 

But still uneasiness could be felt onboard the Appollon, a Greek ship that was unloading its sweet cargo from El Salvador at the Sugar Dock in early April. Sailors, who Ho said regularly pose for photos, seemed leery of the camera when accompanied by a recorder, notepad and an unfamiliar reporter.

Although unwilling to appear in a photo with Ho, or give his full name claiming “no last name after KGB,” the Ukrainian electrician who went by Voladymyro did give insight into ocean life.

“Seaman’s life is like a dog’s life. It was better in the 1980s,” he said, adding that while conditions have improved since he worked on a Soviet Union ship in 1979, the workload per man has drastically increased. “Then there was four electricians and one electrical engineer. Now there is only one electrician.”

After experiencing life under Soviet rule, Voladymyro decided to change his career path by taking a job in a factory for half a decade.

“The factory was good because you get to sleep with wife every night, but the money” is better at sea, so he returned, saying goodbye to his family who receive 90 per cent of his wage while he is away most of the year.

This is the other hardship which every sailor faces when attempting to provide for their family. Not only are they physically distanced from their loved ones, a $10 onboard Internet fee and captain-only restriction on the ship’s phone limits sailors from contacting anyone while at sea.

“The trade off is their loneliness and their detachment from home all the time,” said Ho, who’s seen husbands lose their wives while trying to provide for them.

With these many burdens on the shoulders of those who choose to make a living riding the waves, it is no wonder that “the spiritual side is normally a little bit relaxed,” said Ho. 

All Ho can really do is pray.

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