Calming the waters for troubled sailors Volunteers: The Baltimore International Seafarer's Center offers solace and company for tired, lonely mariners from around the world.

November 09, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The ship's master insisted that Allene Taylor and a friend dine with him aboard ship. They sat down in the officers' mess to a white tablecloth and a menu of deep concerns.

The Filipino captain had just lost his wife to cancer. His 20-year-old daughter wanted to attend college in Manila. He lived on the high seas and was worried sick about her having no mother.

"Captains don't have many people to talk with," he said.

"I was glad I was there," said Taylor of Timonium, a volunteer at the Baltimore International Seafarer's Center at Dundalk Marine Terminal. "He needed someone to listen."

The center helps seamen -- whether captains, oilers or deckhands -- when they dock in the port of Baltimore with a load of worries.

The aid could be a search, as was the case Thursday when Taylor found and arranged for a laptop computer part to be rushed from Pennsylvania to Serhat Ozkaragoz, the thankful chief engineer of the Turkish ship Kaptan Tevfik Aksu.

Or it could be a ride in the center's van to shop at Eastpoint Mall, perhaps for toothpaste, books, clothing, food and religious materials. It could be telephone cards at a discount, being bailed out of jail, getting legal or medical help, or just being given an ear and a word of comfort.

"The tired captain had been up 30 hours with his ship at the coal pier," Taylor said of the Filipino. I told him his wife seemed to have been a very fine person who no doubt taught her daughter values and [she] would make her father proud. We talked more. The captain was appreciative."

Among the 200 agencies in the North American Maritime Ministry Association, the Baltimore group is the only one staffed entirely by volunteers, said Paul Chapman, executive secretary of the New York-based network.

"It's amazing the outstanding work the Baltimore people do for seamen, without anyone getting paid," Chapman said. "They are very special people."

Yet Edward Munro, 54, an Episcopal deacon from Bowie who is the group's chaplain, is frustrated.

"We're the most underserved port in the United States. We have come a long way. But we're lucky if we get to help a fifth of the 2,000 to 3,000 ships coming here every year. We have eight to 10 regular volunteers. We need more. I have been unable to get churches interested.

"I started the center because the traditional seamen's missions were gone. People help the hungry of Baltimore, the homeless, the children, the sick, but few were helping the seamen."

The few include the Rev. Don Bryant, who visits ships as director of port ministry at the Baltimore Baptist Association, 4904 Harford Road.

That a sailor's life is difficult is obvious, said Taylor, a retired Federal Reserve Bank official who has boarded more than 100 oceangoing ships here in the past two years. Sailors make several hundred dollars a month, work shifts of eight to 12 hours, don't see their families for months and face long, lonely stretches at sea.

Still, many see their lives as better than if they worked menial jobs in their native countries. Most are from Eastern Europe or Pacific Rim countries such as the Philippines. A seagoing physician from Ukraine told Munro that he made $400 a month as a shipboard radio operator but at home would be a servant for little if any pay.

Noel B. Pangantihon, 38, a cook on the Phoenix Diamond, sought out the center to call his home in the Philippines, where he and several shipmates support extended families.

"Everything's all right at home," he said, smiling as he hung up the phone at the center, which consists of three crowded rooms in a red-brick building at the Broening Highway terminal. "This is a good place. When I have a problem, I come here."

Not all situations are problems. The captain of the Turkish ship, Yildizpek Oktag, whose vessel carries cargo ranging from ingots to soybeans, was a good-natured host to Taylor and two other volunteers at a lunch of vegetable soup, homemade bread, rice and yogurt. The topics of conversation included politics, religion, medicine at sea and grandchildren.

But Taylor was troubled after talking recently with a sailor from a cruise ship who came to buy a telephone card. "He was tired and drained, talked in a monotone. I'm not a doctor, but we certainly see depressed people," she said. "He left sad, and I felt badly. Could I have done more?"

A new Welsh study found that many sailors become depressed and suicidal. The study, conducted by the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff, Wales, concluded that as many as three suicides might occur each week among seamen. Depression also leads to accidents, the study concluded.

"Stress, social deprivation, loneliness, isolation, as well as verbal and physical abuse, may have contributed to this situation," said the study, which was reported by the maritime newspaper the Sea, published by London-based Missions to Seamen, with which the Baltimore group is affiliated.

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