Hello? Can anyone hear me?

Judith Alltree standing in front of a ship in the Toronto harbour.
The Rev. Judith Alltree stands in front of a ship docked in Toronto harbour in 2019.
 on November 29, 2023
Michael Hudson

Look around you the next time you’re riding a bus or subway, or sitting in a waiting room at the dentist, doctor or your hairdresser. Notice what most people are doing: they are on their mobile devices, smartphones or tablets, keeping in touch with the world with their heads down, focused on the screens in front of them while shutting out the rest of us. All of which seems like normal behavior.

Now try to imagine that you are on a huge ship (think a cruise ship with fewer people, pools and bars and more giant cargo containers). You pick up your smartphone to make a call to your family and… nothing happens. You are in the middle of the ocean, where there are no cell towers, where there is no Wi-Fi. Just dead air. What do you do? Nothing. You wait until you reach land, possibly weeks away. You hope and pray that there’s a local seafarer centre with free access to Wi-Fi and that you will be given enough time to get off your ship, get to the centre and make that call.

The Mission to Seafarers distributes a survey called the happiness index, which is available throughout the year to any seafarer anywhere who wants to complete it. In fact, there is an entire website devoted to the happiness index ( where statistics are posted that reflect the views of seafarers from around the world. And everyone in the shipping industry is now paying attention to those statistics and to what the seafarers are concerned about (think: recruitment and retention of staff).

Two of the most important issues that have arisen through the happiness index are shore leave and connectivity. Although COVID-19 is mostly in the rearview mirror, many countries and ports – and indeed shipping companies – often refuse seafarers shore leave, to the detriment of their mental and physical health. Canada has attempted to maintain a “green zone,” which has allowed shore leave and repatriation of seafarers, except during the height of COVID-19. The Mission to Seafarers is vigilant in ensuring that seafarers are given shore leave when they arrive anywhere in Canada.

In addition to allowing the seafarers time away from their ships (and each other… think about being trapped in your office, 24/7, for weeks at a time), shore leave gives them access to free Wi-Fi at the seafarer centre, which are often the only places a seafarer can get free Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi on board ship may be available, but its access is strictly limited, often based on rank, and it’s never free. There is only one port in Canada that offers free Wi-Fi, and it isn’t in Ontario.

So it is a huge relief for seafarers to be able to get the Wi-Fi code immediately on arrival at the mission stations and to connect with loved ones around the world. Even though Canada has the most expensive mobile communication systems in the world, seafarer welfare centres, particularly the Mission to Seafarers, offer this as service of primary importance.

We “landlubbers” take so much for granted. We complain about the price of things, especially since the pandemic, yet we can still just go to the grocery store or market and buy groceries, gas, clothing, school supplies – or choose not to, depending on our budgets. And then we can pick up a phone, call a friend and commiserate with them about these price increases. Then again, we’re on land. Our seafarer friends, who bring us 90 per cent of everything (and can afford almost none of those things) are often stuck in the middle of the ocean and can’t access a store or a mobile signal from a cell tower.

Please keep seafarers in your thoughts and prayers this Christmastime, especially when you go out to do your Christmas shopping. (Remember: “No shipping, no shopping.”) Please donate to the Mission to Seafarers Southern Ontario through our CanadaHelps platform ( Help us bring the “ministry of small gestures” to all our seafarers this Christmastime. And thank you for your support!


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