x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The angel of the high seas

The Flying Angel is the only vessel in the world seeking out ships to offer home comforts to those who spend months at sea.

The Flying Angel spots a ship off the Fujairah coast. The captain will next make radio contact and offer his services.
The Flying Angel spots a ship off the Fujairah coast. The captain will next make radio contact and offer his services.

Seven months after they last stood on dry land, Marsello Takase and a dozen shipmates step from the Clipper Sun, the Norwegian oil tanker they call home, and sample some simple pleasures: phone calls home, downloading family photographs from e-mails and buying chocolate. "It's like we have our life back for a few minutes," says the Filipino seaman, delighted at the break from the seafarer's daily routine. But the men are still at sea; when they briefly leave the Clipper Sund, anchored off Fujairah, it is to board another vessel that has drawn alongside, a 27-metre floating haven for sailors for whom normal shore leave is not an option.

The Flying Angel is the first vessel of its kind in the world, a modern refinement of the help provided for a century and a half by the Mission to Seafarers. Almost every day of the year, the motor launch sails from the port of Fujairah to provide facilities land dwellers take for granted - internet access, telephones and a range of personal items - to the crews of merchant ships a few kilometres off the coast.

Inaugurated by Prince Charles, heir to the English throne, to mark the charity's 150th anniversary, the Flying Angel's service is the brainchild of an Anglican priest from the UK, the Rev Stephen Miller, and receives funding from Al Maktoum Foundation, the International Transport Workers' Federation, churches, other charitable institutions and individuals. Most of the seamen who find a welcome aboard the Flying Angel are Filipino and Indian merchant sailors working on oil tankers, container vessels or cruise ships. It is not unusual for them to be confined to their vessels for months on end, unable to go ashore because of the demands of a busy workload or unfinished paperwork, or because the cost of doing so is beyond them.

Off Fujairah, most ships anchor for a maximum of 10 days, but can be as far as 30 kilometres from shore, so a small chartered craft would be needed to ferry them to and from the port. "It could cost them US$1,000 (Dh3,600) to come to shore, with one and a half hours each way plus two to three hours on shore," says Mr Miller. "So shipowners say this method is preferable to them. But at least the sailors get 'shore leave'."

A typical voyage takes the boat towards anchorage points five to eight kilometres off Fujairah. On one such mission joined by a team from The National, Capt Chris Salindeho repeatedly makes radio contact with ships, asking if their crews have any opportunity for some time off for shore leave and whether they want to avail themselves of the Flying Angel's services. "Good afternoon," he says on channel 16, used internationally for maritime communications. "Calling from service boat Flying Angel. Over." On many ships, the greeting is readily understood. Word has spread among seafarers. But this time, the ship picking up the message has too tight a work schedule for the Flying Angel to pay a visit.

"Right now, no information from the Captain if we have shore leave. Over," says the radio operator from the Norwegian tanker BW-UBUD. Capt Salindeho tries again, making a similar approach to the Norweigian BW-DANNIS. "I have internet and phone and duty- free," he says. "If your crew needs service, I'll come over. The offer is gratefully accepted. "OK Flying Angel," comes the reply. "We have a diving operation under way. But we will finish in one hour."

The clergyman is present with his crew of five to greet the tanker's crew. "When they come aboard, they go right to the shop and buy chocolate," he says. "Then they place calls to their families, then go online, often to download pictures of their families. Sometimes they want to talk after speaking to their family, if they've received good news, or bad." The Flying Angel, which charges small amounts for telephone calls and such items as toothpaste, confectionery and even basic electrical goods, is widely appreciated by the men - and women, who these days account for one merchant seafarer in eight - who often spend months isolated from their families and onshore lives. The Fujairah anchorage can be home to as many as 150 ships at once, as they refuel and do business. One of the vessels anchored there as the Flying Angel makes its rounds is a bulk carrier for grain and other commodities belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line.

Coincidentally, the IRISL, which enjoys a reputation within shipping for excellence in training and working conditions, was nominated this year for the Seatrade Award, a prestigious honour that went, in the end, to the Flying Angel for its innovative work with seafarers. The IRISL and its sailors are well known to Mr Miller and his colleagues. "Often the IRISL has a multinational crew, and sometimes they're 100 per cent Iranian," says Mr Miller. "Sometimes you come across Christian Iranians. They're very open. They've travelled the world."

The Flying Angel then passes another ship anchored nearby, a large transporter that looks oddly incomplete. It has no hull, but two bridges, one each at the bow and the stern. In the middle, there is empty space that barely rises above water level. "That ship is used to transport boats. It submerges below water, then moves below a boat and rises with the boat on top of it," says Mr Miller. Almost 10 years ago, five seamen died on a ship just like it - the Mighty Servant - which submerged off the Indonesian coast and never returned to the surface. Sometimes the Flying Angel comes across ships with crew members who speak little English, and have trouble grasping the concept of a service ship.

"Occasionally we find a Russian ship that doesn't understand," the priest said. "Initially you're viewed with suspicion, but then they see computers and internet and phones. The curtain opens and light comes in. One Russian captain, his first time off his ship in six months, came aboard last October and spent his time checking personal e-mails and phoning his wife." When a ship says it has free time, the Flying Angel motors toward it, then moors head-on at the ship's starboard side, allowing the crew to jump on board. As well as offering creature comforts, the Flying Angel provides one-to-one counselling for those in need, and Mr Miller recalls touching moments with sailors who have turned to him for sympathy.

"On one tanker with a Filipino crew, a man had committed suicide by jumping overboard," he says. "So we sat around in the majlis area (a living room inside the cabin) and talked about it. Sometimes after a death on board, they want their ship blessed." Calls home bring surprises, good and bad. One man jumped for joy on discovering that his wife had given birth. He had not even known that she was pregnant; his wife had previously suffered a miscarriage and did not want to worry him while he was away at sea. Most sailors who board the Flying Angel are happy to have access to what would, on land, be everyday purchases.

"One crew spent most of their time in the shop then went back and forth to their ship to make sure the appliances they purchased fit. Sometimes they just want a different flavoured toothpaste," Mr Miller says. One satisfied customer who sticks in his mind was a captain who boarded the Flying Angel from a small tanker, George Sea, and left clutching two novels. "It's lonely at sea," the skipper told him. "These books will keep me company."