UK maritime welfare charities find a creative way to connect crews

21 May 2019

Many seafarers can only get internet access when in port, but if there’s no time to get to a seafarer centre, they can still find themselves without a strong and secure signal to help them contact their families. Luckily, UK welfare charities may have found a solution, as Andrew Linington reports

Maritime welfare charities across the UK are taking part in a pilot project to provide the crews of visiting vessels with access to high-speed internet services.

The one-year trial scheme – funded by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust and managed by the Merchant Navy Welfare Board (MNWB) – is using mi-fi technology (wireless routers that act as a mobile wi-fi hotspot) to provide seafarers with a strong and secure internet connection to contact families and friends.

The Port MiFi project has been launched in response to surveys and research – including Nautilus International’s 2016 connectivity study – showing that the majority of seafarers struggle with the challenges of poor quality, costly, or non-existent onboard internet connections.

Whilst data published last year indicated that just over 60% of seafarers say they have access to some form of crew communications either 'always' or 'most' of the time, only 45% have free internet access onboard. Similarly, Nautilus found that 88% of members worked onboard ships with internet access, but only 57% could use it for personal emails and only 34% could use social media.

Even when their ship is in port, many crew members are unable to get ashore to use the internet services provided at seafarer centres – and that's if the port even has a seafarer centre.

'As we know, internet access is the number one request of seafarers to port-based seafarers' welfare providers,' MNWB deputy chief executive Sharon Coveney explained.

'Most seafarers' centres now provide free internet access in their facilities; however, it's a sad reality that seafarers are not always able to leave their vessels, and as a consequence are often unable to contact their family and friends. 

'Providing them with the chance to contact home, no matter how brief, can make so much difference to seafarers visiting our UK ports, and the MNWB is proud to coordinate this worthwhile initiative on behalf of the ITF Seafarers' Trust.'

'Most seafarers' centres now provide free internet access in their facilities; however, it's a sad reality that seafarers are not always able to leave their vessels, and as a consequence are often unable to contact their family and friends

Recent reports from the Sailors' Society, the Apostleship of the Sea and the North American Maritime Ministry Association have highlighted the growing importance of decent connectivity to seafarer wellbeing. There's mounting evidence to show that reliable internet access not only helps to reduce some of the emotional stresses caused by separation from friends and families ashore but can also boost operational efficiency and safety.

The Port MiFi project aims to address these issues by giving maritime welfare ship visitors the ability to bring the equipment to visiting vessels in UK ports. The mi-fi units utilise 50GB sim cards that enable crew members to connect with family and friends, as well as accessing websites and apps such as Skype and FaceTime.

The £35,000 pilot project has provided a total of 60 mi-fi units which have been shared between eight different welfare charities – the Mission to Seafarers, Apostleship of the Sea, Sailors’ Society, Seamen’s Christian Friend Society, Aberdeen Seafarers Centre, Liverpool Seafarers Centre, the Fishermen’s Mission and the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest – who will deliver the services at ports across the UK.

The trial scheme will run until 8 May 2020, and feedback from seafarers and ship welfare visitors will be gathered over the year to assess the impact of the service, the amount of data being used each month, the websites and apps being used, and the value of improved connectivity.

Early results have been very encouraging, with positive reports from seafarers and ship visitors alike. One welfare worker told how he had taken the mi-fi unit onboard a cruiseship, connected 20 crew to the unit and then had to limit them to 20 minutes of access so that others could get a turn.

'This is an excellent MNWB project,' said Apostleship of the Sea national director Martin Foley. 'Research consistently shows that when visiting ports, seafarers' primary needs are communication and transport. With the MNWB already supporting the well-established vehicle replacement programme, which enables us to provide transport for seafarers, this mi-fi project enables us to help seafarers with communications too.

'We're looking forward to collaborating with the MNWB on this project and, importantly, providing feedback and evidence of its benefit to seafarers from our team of 20 port chaplains and over 100 volunteers whose focus is on ship visiting and providing onboard welfare services,' he added.

Sailors' Society deputy CEO and head of programme Sandra Welch said it was 'wonderful' to be collaborating on the project. 'Our recent report Navigating everyday connectivities at sea highlighted that wi-fi aboard ships, even limited, really helps to reduce the emotional stresses that come with separation from families, so it's great to see this in action,' she added.

'The new mi-fi devices will help seafarers stay in touch with their families and it will enhance the onboard work of our chaplains and volunteer ship visitors,' said Mission to Seafarers regional director Revd Ijeoma Ajibade.

Queen Victoria Seamen's Rest chief executive Alexander Campbell, who oversees the London Tilbury and London Gateway seafarer centres, said the mi-fi service will greatly enhance the work of welfare teams in busy ports. 'Often communication with home is vital to seafarers visiting our shores, and the ability to give them this facility onboard ships and at the seafarer centres on the Thames will be welcomed by seafarers,' he added. 'The QVSR chaplaincy team, seafarer centre staff and all at QVSR want to thank those funders who made this initiative happen.'

John Lowry, project manager with the Seamen’s Christian Friend Society, said he was confident the mi-fi units will deliver significant benefits for seafarers. 'Reducing the impact of isolation and issues resulting from loneliness at sea is imperative,' he stressed.