Jill Wyllie volunteers as a ship visitor for the Mission to Seafarers Southern Ontario, which has mission stations in the ports of Oshawa, Toronto and Hamilton.
I am a cradle Anglican, born and raised in a tiny parish in the south of England, but have lived my entire adult life in Canada and am now a member of St. Peter, Oshawa. I had never heard of the Mission to Seafarers until an article appeared in the local paper about the installation of a new mission station at the Port of Oshawa, calling for volunteers, and it captured my imagination as being quite a contrast to my hospital volunteering. For the first time in my life, I considered what working life at sea might be like for extended periods of time, with homes and families far away. I eventually joined the group shortly after the mission’s official opening in 2015 and have been an enthusiastic ship visitor ever since.
Initially we go on board to welcome each international ship soon after its arrival with our contact information and a bag of chocolates. We explain to an officer what we can do for the crew: provide free WiFi, refreshments and donations of clothing, books and toiletries in our mission, otherwise known as the “seamen’s club,” plus souvenirs for sale and free transportation to shopping and recreation, with information about local amenities.
Before the pandemic, we could expect more than 40 ships a year in Oshawa, but that number has since been reduced to about 30. Almost all the ships are carrying steel, but occasionally they may have large machine parts, and once we had a tanker in port. Crews may number anywhere between 12 on a tanker and 17 to 23 on the steel carriers. Ships docking on the west side of the port in Oshawa are in close proximity to a very attractive park, and it’s a pleasure to see seafarers taking full advantage of it. Such a beautiful green space next to the port is quite a rarity.
The ships come to us from all over the world and the crews can be a mix of nationalities and languages, but communication is always manageable and we enjoy our interaction. It is very rewarding – though sometimes challenging – to be able to gratify their wishes, and several seafarers have continued to stay in touch across the world on WhatsApp with a “how r u?” chat and family photos. I can’t express how heartwarming that is, and I would strongly recommend others to volunteer and find out for themselves.
Sometimes a seafarer will ask me why I do what I do; I tell him that the blessing conveyed to me by him for giving me the opportunity to be useful far outweighs any granted to him by my actions. Simply put, it makes me happy. Once in a while an officer will express his appreciation with an invitation to a meal on board, which is accepted with alacrity whenever possible. That’s always an interesting and a very enjoyable experience, with a pleasant sense of comradeship. Generosity is also frequently shown to us in gifts of well-travelled chocolates, candy or small donations to the mission, which reinforces the value of our contribution to the seamen’s welfare while they are with us. We are aware that our actions can make an appreciable difference; I like to feel that we provide a “soft place” for them to land when they come ashore.
My spiritual journey took several twists and turns, including a long period of estrangement due to horrifying world events, including the Biafra crisis affecting so many babies and children, and it took a particularly low point in my personal life to bring me back to a solid relationship with the Church, but on reflection it was all profoundly educational and did eventually lead me to where I am now, which I feel is where I was meant to be.
I would like to think that five years from now I’d be doing what I’m doing now, spending much of my time volunteering in Lakeridge Health, Oshawa, and as a ship visitor whenever there’s a ship in port, but as I’d be well into my ninth decade that expectation may have to be revised. Apart from other considerations, the ships’ gangways can be 42 steps high!
The 23rd psalm has always had special meaning for me, as it has for so many; it conveys such reassurance, hope and peace.