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Welcome ashore!


Out at sea for sometimes 40 days at a time, the life of a sailor can be a lonely one. Separated from family for months and working in often dangerous weather conditions can take their toll with feelings of isolation and depression common.

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But providing a beacon of light for about 700 seafarers each year is the Stella Maris Centre in Taperoo.

“They say Adelaide is one of the best places to come to – maybe we’re a bit friendlier here,” acting director Ian Keane quipped.

There is no doubt that the volunteers at the centre, which is operated by the Apostleship of the Sea Catholic Ministry, do their utmost to meet the requests from the sailors who visit Outer Harbor. Whether it is sourcing a welding kit, buying groceries and clothes or visiting family graves – the team provides a valuable support for their ‘spiritual, social and material’ welfare.

In Australia, there are 15 AOS port chaplains and more than 160 volunteers assisting the estimated 130,000 seafarers who transit the nation’s 25 ports each year.

As volunteers Tony Elstob, Michael Collins and Greg Flaherty explained as they drove to Wharf 8 to meet the crew of the Chinese grain ship Ansac Kathryn, while the sailors are from many different countries, their needs are often quite similar.

The number one priority when they are onshore is being able to contact their family. Sometimes they will be away from home for nine months at a time, so staying in touch is vital for their emotional wellbeing.

The simple phone card is their lifeblood, and the volunteers are well versed in helping them select the best option to meet their needs.

“We find that in general the sailors are using smart phones, tablets and laptops to keep in touch with their families,” explained Tony, who has a good appreciation of their needs due to his career as a merchant seaman. Since retiring 10 years ago he has been volunteering at Stella Maris, describing it as his way of “giving back” to those who continue to work on the high seas.

Shopping and socialising are also high on the sailors’ list of priorities. Once they are collected from the wharves in the Stella Maris ‘free’ bus, they are transported back to the centre and from there some are taken to local shopping centres – usually at West Lakes or Port Adelaide – or perhaps a nearby hotel. Others are content to stay at the centre, playing guitars, taking advantage of the free wi-fi, relaxing and having a chat with the volunteers. Sometimes the Catholics in the crew ask for Mass or confession or to see the priest.
Then, of course, there are the more unusual requests.

Michael said the other week one of the sailors wanted to buy a welding kit and another wanted a special King Kong wrench, so they took them to Bunnings.

He also related the story of an Indian captain who visited last year. His father, also a ship’s captain, had been in Adelaide about 35 years ago when he suffered a heart attack and died. He was buried in the Centennial Park cemetery and his son, who had visited the grave during a stop in Adelaide about 10 years ago, asked to be taken to the cemetery again.

“We were happy to take him and using his phone he was able to send back images to his family in India who had never visited the grave. It was a very special moment and he was so grateful to us for making it happen,” Michael said.

More than half the sailors visiting the centre are Filipinos and Greg said they were “really happy people and very appreciative of what we do”.

Crews also come from China, India and eastern European countries and although English may not be spoken, the volunteers can generally understand their requests using sign language.

The role of Stella Maris Centre has changed over the years to accommodate the changing life of the seafarer. Today, the crews are much smaller – usually 20-25 people – and depending on the cargo being loaded, they can be in port for less than 24 hours. To accommodate those who may not have time to visit the centre, a ‘ship visitor’ goes to the wharves each weekday morning to give a ‘welcome to Adelaide’ and sell phone cards.

Most volunteers at the centre have been giving their time for several years and say they love the work as they get to meet people from around the world and it keeps them up-to-date with the latest technology.

However, reasons such as ill-health and relocation have seen the number of volunteers dwindle in recent times, resulting in only four bus services being offered each week.

“We really need to get some more volunteers so we can provide services on the other days – another 10 people would be wonderful,” said Ian.

“Volunteers don’t have to be Catholic, but just have a Christian outlook. Not everyone has to go out on the wharves, some can just be available to help at the centre if that’s what they would prefer.

“Most important is that they can offer a welcoming smile, be willing to help and prepared to listen.”

If you would like more information about volunteering at Stella Maris contact Adelaide director Ian Keane on 0438 344 400 or email

All collections from the Sea Sunday Appeal on July 23 will support the AOS ministry.


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