Welcome from Commander Graham Hockley LVO RN

May 19, 2020

As Chair of the Maritime Charities Group (MCG), I’m delighted to welcome you to my first blog. I was pleased that the work of the MCG and the wider maritime charities sector was highlighted by Lord Mountevans during the recent House of Lords debate on the fundraising and organisational challenges faced by the charitable and voluntary sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. That was definitely a first for MCG.

These are unprecedented times and maritime charities are working hard to support the seafaring community and those on the front line during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sitting at the helm, so to speak, I’m witnessing some incredible work, with our members pulling together in the most extraordinary way.

That’s because the men and women who are keeping our supply lines running and those who are struggling to cope without work all need extra help. So we are digging deep, often into our reserves, to fund a range of initiatives to support them through the front line charities that we support. From welfare packages for merchant seafarers who are stranded at sea and denied access to ports; to food parcels and cash for those fishermen stuck on shore with no market for their fish.

Our members vary in size and scope but we all have seafarers at our heart.  Between us we help fund roughly 140 front line maritime charities. The majority concentrate on seafarers from or in the UK but some operate on an international level. Between us we cover the whole gamut of seafarers past and present – and their dependants: from children to pensioners; members of the Fishing Fleet to the Merchant Navy; and those in the Naval Service (RN, RM and RFA).

In normal times we act as a forum for exchanging best practice, commissioning research and conducting consultation. Indeed, we have produced some seminal work on subjects such as the demographics of UK seafarers, a topic too large for a single member to consider.

However, and it is a big however, these are not normal times. The Group, diverse yet collegiate, has mobilised to meet the new, or perhaps more accurately, more extreme issues now faced by seafarers. Through our fortnightly zoom meetings and weekly updates from our delivery partners, we hear what’s happening on the ground, review the issues faced both by the seafarers themselves and those working to support them, help charities help each other, safely speed up grant making processes, and take time to look at the longer view.

And these are the issues we see.

In a normal month around 100,000 seafarers are in transit between ship and home. This suddenly stopped, leaving many literally stranded, sometimes without the means to make other arrangements or even find accommodation. In the UK this has now been resolved with government agencies and port-based seafarers centres all working together.

Naval families and veterans have not been immune to the wider effects of the  COVID-19 pandemic. Our Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity member has enabled the delivery of over 500 emergency welfare parcels to isolated Veterans and families.

And the UK fishing industry came to a halt, not because the fishers couldn’t fish, but because their markets for fish in Spain and Italy and for shellfish in China had disappeared. The nature of the industry means that many have little in the way of personal reserves and were quickly suffering real hardship. Action by Seafarers UK and the Fishmongers Company has done much to relieve the immediate hardship and help them find alternative UK markets (for example, www.freshfromtheboat.co.uk). And their welfare needs have been addressed by the Fishermen’s Mission, Sailors Children’s Society and Royal Merchant Navy Education Foundation. In addition, SAIL the Seafarers Advice and Information Line, has brought in more staff to cope with the unprecedented demand and help their clients overcome hardship.

As the UK moves from phase one to phase two of this pandemic so the Group sees the demands on the charities also changing. The first phase saw them dealing with immediate hardships such as how to feed fishermen’s families, help children attend virtual lessons, and get seafarers home. Now as we approach the second phase and government support for mortgage and rental holidays, debt repayment etc eases, so the issues faced by the charities will also change, as will the need to regenerate services like ship visits by chaplains and the reopening of seafarers centres around the world.

Consequently, MCG members are expecting a yet heavier call on their funds. Between us we have already committed over £4m to meet the demands of this very rainy day.

I was wondering how to conclude this edition of the blog, but have concluded that currently no conclusion is possible. The actions of the sector’s charities are ongoing and seamless, sometimes unique to the sector but sometimes, like the issues facing Seafarers care homes, such as Mariners’ Park run by Nautilus Welfare Fund, are common across the country and will be highlighted at the Group’s next meeting on Monday 18 May. I look forward to letting you know how it went before too long.

Keep well and consider if Dr Johnson was right when he said “life at sea is like life in a gaol with the added risk of drowning”. Personally, I think he missed the point and if alive today perhaps he should engage with Seafarer UK’s ‘Seafarers Awareness Week‘ (6 to 12 July 2020) where he will learn much more about seafarers and their world.

Commander Graham Hockley LVO RN