x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UAE's ship of mercy to sailors at sea faces choppy waters over finances

The Flying Angel docks alongside moored vessels to give sailors stuck off the shores of the UAE a chance to unwind, but the vessel is becoming too expensive to run.

Alexander Lalantacon, a sailor, reads a book onboard the Flying Angel during its visit to his ship off the coast of the UAE.
Alexander Lalantacon, a sailor, reads a book onboard the Flying Angel during its visit to his ship off the coast of the UAE.

FUJAIRAH // A ship that offers a lifeline to lonely seafarers is in troubled waters because of a funding crunch.

The Flying Angel docks alongside moored vessels to let sailors use the internet, borrow books from its library, talk to a counsellor or buy essentials from the shop.

Many sailors do not set foot on land for between four months to a year, even if their ships are anchored within sight of land.
They may not be permitted onshore due to ship rules or strict port formalities.

For the more than 2,000 sailors in the Fujairah anchorage who go aboard every month, the Flying Angel is a brief respite from the rigours of life at sea.

“The most difficult thing is the loneliness,” said Alexander Lalantacon, 28, an electrician who came onboard with 10 others from a bunker barge that supplies fuel to ships at sea. “I like coming here, making jokes with the crew and watching comedy movies.”

Mr Lalantacon will not see his family until the middle of next year and quickly checked his email for messages from his three children and wife in the Philippines.

“I send chocolates and money with friends returning home,” he said, filling a blue plastic bag with bars of chocolate and packets of crisps from a tiny shop stocked with phone cards, shampoos, soaps, fishing tackle and snacks.

“We wait for the Angel. It brings us happiness and time to relax.”

The ship has been operating since 2007 on funds received from local companies, UAE charities and the Mission to Seafarers in London, a welfare agency that operates seafarer centres in 258 ports in 71 countries.

“As a charity, we rely on voluntary donations to keep the ship going,” said Ben Bailey, the mission’s public relations officer. “It is no longer sustainable, the vessel is too expensive to run and that is sad because so many seafarers rely on it.”

For now, the crew diligently plots daily routes taking them to more than 100 ships anchored off the port.

The radio constantly crackles with messages urging, “Angel, can you come to us today? When?”

The ship calls on five ships daily over six days. Shouts of “relax, relax” ring out when the vessel pulls up near a ship and the sailors climb aboard.

Some queue up in the shop, others lounge on blue cushions and watch television, while many hunch over computers or pore over newspapers in the library.

“It’s a unique project and I’m more of a welfare officer here than a chaplain,” said Geoffrey Moore, the ship’s chaplain. “I’m here for everyone, whatever their nationality or religion.

“I talk to them about their families and get them to open up. They have to trust you. Some crew could be here for six months and they call us up and build a rapport.

“If you get them to laugh, they feel more comfortable.”

Mr Moore offers counselling, discussing issues such as piracy and unpaid wages. “We look out for the crew’s welfare,” he said. “We basically tell them we will be there from start to end.”

Alfredo Reyes, a chief officer of the bunker barge, said the crew looked forward to visits by the Angel.

“I like reading newspapers and checking on safety, especially about pirates,” he said. “We work hard and Angel helps us stay normal.”

rtalwar@thenational.ae