The Fort Vancouver Seafarers Center

Nestled in the heart of a major industrial area on the Columbia River waterfront at the busy Port of Vancouver, Washington, is a cozy haven for mariners that welcomes men and women from all around the world. The Seafarers Center has been operating for more than half a century, with help from local donors. Their welcoming house on site at the port is a cozy refuge where people can get off ships and take a break from the rigors of life at sea.

This week on the Ship Report I’m talking with Kent Williams – he’s the center’s executive director. He’ll share stories about what the center does to help mariners far from home, offering services like a ride to a store, a place to wire money home, a place to worship. or just a quiet place to reflect, far from the throb of diesel engines and the demands of constant work at sea.

I visited the center last weekend to give a talk about a trip I took on a cargo ship in 2010, my personal glimpse of life at sea. That’s where I talked with Kent Williams. The interview, and my visit to the center, reminded me how much we all depend on the fraction of the world’s population that makes their livelihood on the water. The world’s merchant seaman workforce is about 1.5 million people, a fraction of the world, or even the US, population. Those men and women, operating about 50,000 ships, bring us all our stuff. And that’s just the raw materials and manufactured goods. Factor in the world’s fishing fleet, which brings us much of our food, and you see a web of life in which we all depend upon each other.

In this season of gratitude and thanks, let’s give thanks to the mariners who pass silently and invisibly by our doors each day, on the mighty Columbia River and other waterways of the world.

Here’s a link to the story about the center and my talk, that appeared this week in the Columbian newspaper:

Center celebrates seafarers, brings holiday cheer

Danger on the water, bounty on your table

It’s fall, going on winter, on the coast, and I’m seeing reminders of how formidable our Pacific Northwest environment can be, not just in the increasingly difficult weather, but in how that weather affects people who work in our marine environment. Some of those reminders become causes for mourning.

Recently on the Ship Report, I talked with listeners about a tragic occurrence in the waters off Alaska, where a fishermen went overboard in Kotzebue Sound in the northwest part of the state. Conditions there were far from ideal, but typical: 5 foot seas, 20 knot winds, and water temperature around 43 degrees F. A crew member on a fishing boat went overboard. He was not wearing a life jacket.

The Coast Guard press release described it this way, in horrifying practical detail, as press releases often do, “He was last seen sinking below the water’s surface by crew aboard his fishing vessel Juda Lee.”

This incident reminds us in stark terms about what it takes to catch the fish we rejoice in eating here on the coast. The bulk of our locally caught fish is harvested by small crews on fishing boats who go out in horrific weather. Sometimes people die.

This fisherman likely never had a chance once he fell over the rail. While some might make the case that he should have been wearing a life jacket, fishermen often don’t, because of the risk that it might get caught on dangerous deck gear while they are working, and injure or kill them in that way. The job is fraught with potential catastrophic injury. But without flotation, it’s unlikely that a person could have stayed above water for more than a few minutes in water that cold. In rough conditions like those happening that day, it would be even harder to save a person, even one who did have on a PFD (personal flotation device).

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the result of a moment of awful luck, his crewmates are left with horrifying memories that will likely never leave them. A lost companion, snatched by an unforgiving sea.

So the next time you sit down to a fish dinner, give thanks to the fishermen (and women) who risked their lives to bring it to you. They go where the fish are, because that’s what it takes to catch them. They accept that risk as part of the job. It’s not a risk most of us are prepared to take.