AS he sat with the grieving shipmates of a seafarer who had taken his life off the coast of Newcastle, the Reverend Canon Garry Dodd felt oceans apart from those he was trying to comfort.
COVID-19 restrictions meant the chaplain from Newcastle's Mission to Seafarers had to keep his distance, and everyone was wearing personal protection equipment.
"It was just surreal to be sharing your heart and soul behind two masks," Father Dodd said. "I could see as he [the ship's captain] cried, it stained the top of his mask. To see that was a really salient moment for me."
At least Father Dodd was allowed on the ship in port. The chaplain said following an earlier suicide by a seafarer, the pandemic had prevented him from even boarding the vessel.
For mariners who have sailed over the seas and into Newcastle harbour, COVID-19 has created a barrier between them and the rest of the world. In this port, Father Dodd explained, crews were generally not allowed off their ship, and no one could go on. He said by being quarantined, the mariners were confined to what was a "a floating prison".
"So they've gone from one port to another to another to another in the past six months, since COVID has really hit, and they haven't touched dry land," he said.
Being with an organisation that offers care and hospitality to visiting seafarers, Father Dodd has seen the human toll of that isolation. More to the point, he has barely seen it. No sailors from overseas have been in the mission's centre at Wickham for months to enjoy a respite from ship life, even if for just a couple of hours.
"So there's thousands of people who would normally have that chance to feel like a human being," he said. "But they haven't been able to come ashore just to reconnect with their souls, and with other people, and people important in their world."
Father Dodd and his colleagues have stayed in touch with crews in port via the internet, opening a "digital chaplaincy".
He believes there has been a rise in stress, fatigue and mental illness that he attributes to the COVID-related isolation. Father Dodd said many were still on the ships after their contract had ended, and they were meant to go home.
"What COVID has done is just create an unknown factor: 'When will I go home?'," Father Dodd said. "That's why there's mental health issues. There's isn't a light. 'How long is this tunnel?' They don't know."
Father Dodd is concerned mental health issues raises the risk of a "disaster".
"We have thousands of people out there driving these enormous vessels with all this cargo, all this oil, all this potential for collateral damage ... who are just fatigued, who don't know when they're going to go home, don't know when they're going to see their families," he said.
If seafarers can't visit the centre for a few home comforts, then the mission is taking those comforts to them. Staff and some of the 60 volunteers are assembling "care packages" that include donated items, such as knitted beanies, magazines, and jigsaw puzzles, and hand-written notes, including letters from children .
"Don't give up hope in this tough time," one reads.
Care packages are limited to one per ship. But with about 2500 arrivals in the port annually, and each vessel carrying about 22 crew members, that amounts to a lot of packages and care.
"It just gives them a sense they're not alone," Father Dodd said.
Assembling the care packages at the Seafarers' Centre on Tuesday were Catholic chaplain Bernadette Barry and staff member Dianne Terry.
"We really want to support these seafarers who are going through so much turmoil, not being with their families, being so isolated," Ms Barry said. "Being able to do this for them, we're able to give them some encouragement, and hopefully keep their spirits up."
"They do a lot for us," said Mrs Terry. "A lot of people don't realise how much they do for us, to bring products into Australia, Newcastle."
To help fund the Mission to Seafarers' work, members of the port community are participating in a money-raising virtual journey from this Newcastle to the one in northern England. The "Port to Port - Newcastle to Newcastle" fundraiser involves participants jogging, walking and cycling, with their combined efforts clocking up the kilometres to Britain.
Among those participating is the local head of operations for the Port Authority of NSW, Emma Fensom. As well as funds, the initiative was also raising awareness of seafarers, she said.
"Seafarers' welfare is of concern to me," said Ms Fensom.
The Reverend Canon Garry Dodd hopes the authorities will agree to seafarers being transported in the mission's bus directly from their ships to the Wickham centre and back again.
"I think that would be a simple solution that would give so much to these guys and afford them the opportunity to have a connection with their families and societies, and themselves, and go back a safer seafarer, a happier seafarer, a seafarer who is a bit more hopeful that there's going to be a day when they'll get to go home. That's my prayer."
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