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Tim Bell

Below decks on the cruise liners


They come thick and fast in the summer months. Over this season there are 58 cruise liners anchoring outside Newhaven, and 28, small enough to get through the outer lock, will berth alongside in the Western Harbour.

The larger ships carry over 2,000 passengers, who mostly have a day tour booked – coaches are waiting to whisk them away to Edinburgh Castle, or Loch Lomond, or Abbotsford, or wherever. It’s a much smaller number who walk around the neighbourhood or catch a bus or tram up town.

So they generate economic activity. But not much stays locally.

Our concern here is the crew on board, which can number up to around 450. There’s a long and honourable tradition of caring for seafarers in Leith.

Most of the crew are effectively floating hotel staff, working in the accommodation, the galley and restaurant, the bars, the casino, or entertainment.

They come from all over the world, and mostly have six-month contracts, with two or three months home leave. They do a lot of flying.

They work 10 or 12-hour days, seven days a week.

Through the agent, the organiser of our small team of visitors offers to visit every ship, but we are not always invited, for various reasons. There are usually two or three of us. We head for the crew mess room.

We bring what we can: sim cards which they can top up online are always in demand. We have knitted woolly bonnets. “Wherever in the world you wear it”, we say, “you’ll feel the love from Scotland.” They warm the heart as much as the head. And we carry some prayer cards and rosaries.

Sometimes they ask for a Mass on board. Fr Ray from Stella Maris parish will come if he possibly can.

And the conversations are important. A starter is often a simple question: “which department are you working in?”

One lad told me he worked in the waste department. Nothing can be thrown overboard. Everything – not only the contents of your bins, but also the sewage – has to be properly sorted and prepared for unloading in port.

Another lad said he was on night shift, cutting and slicing fruit and veg for the galley. A sincerely meant expression from us of the value of the work is much appreciated.

Or another good starter is: “Who is at home for you?” Often it is a husband or wife, with children. Sometimes the one at home has help in the house and with the children, maybe while s/he works locally.

That’s a village girl with a safe job. That’s a family getting health care and education that we take for granted. That’s them sharing and investing their relative wealth.

Sometimes it’s elderly parents, or younger siblings they are putting through school.

Some of them are earning some money for a business project. Whatever the circumstances, every dollar goes home. They are working their way out of poverty.

Once, when the break time for most of the crew was over, a Greek engineer, an older man, had three of us to himself as he told us about his daughter at home who had addiction problems. She and his wife needed him at home – but they needed the wage coming in, too.

He was very conflicted. One of my companions silently put her hand on his arm. This was an opportunity to talk openly about his problems with people who weren’t going to gossip.

Nothing religious was mentioned.

If I have one standard piece of advice it is: get off the ship at every opportunity. Even if it’s only for an hour or two between shifts, even if it’s wet or cold, you need to remind yourself that there is a world outside the enclosed, air-conditioned, artificially lit environment that you live and work in for six months.

Last or next port is usually within 24 hours sailing time: Kirkwall or Invergordon to the north, to Dover or Harwich to the south, and Bergen, Copenhagen or Hamburg across the North Sea.

They often can’t name their last port. A days’ work is the same wherever the ship is.

One Indian chap said to me: “We lose everything. When we join ship, we are the new guys. When it’s time to leave six months later, we are the longest on board. When we go home, we have missed everything: weddings, funerals, everyday life. We are just getting back into it when it’s time to leave again.”

We would welcome interest and support from the good folk of Leith.

Visitors need to be badged by either Stella Maris or Mission to Seafarers, and they will be looking for a live church involvement.

You also need training on maritime security and safety, to be ready for next year.

In the first instance get in touch with me by email: and we’ll discuss how to use your good will and skills.

For example, if you’re a knitter, we can never have enough bonnets. ■


Wherever in the world you wear it, we say, you’ll feel the love from Scotland


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