Downtime is a rare treat for those onboard the 292-metre cargo ship Navios Bonheur docked at the Esperance Port.
Onshore, Fred Lochowicz has been waiting to offer its weary crew a ride into town, as the vessel is slowly filled with 175,000 tonnes of iron ore from Western Australia’s goldfields region.
But for the third time today, it seems he will have no takers, until a lone figure scurries down the gangway.
Rodrigo Casumpang III’s first taste of Australia is marked by a pair of ogling pigeons, a cold winter breeze, and Mr Lochowicz’s ardent waving.
The 21-year-old has only been a cadet crewman for 18 days and it has already landed him more than 5,000 kilometres from his home town near Manila.
But with eight and a half months left on his contract, the young Filipino is anxious to buy vitamins and SIM cards while he has the chance.
Mr Lochowicz is only too happy to help out.
The Mission to Seafarers
Mr Lochowicz and his colleague Reverend Frank Roe are the driving force behind the Esperance branch of the Mission to Seafarers.
Five times a day, 364 days a year, they drive to the Esperance Port to offer crewman from all over the world a ride to their Dempster Street headquarters.
Those arriving at this single-storey building are greeted by shelves of stuffed Australian animals, a wall of clocks displaying times in cities from Vancouver to Cape Horn, a map of Australia with a pointer at Esperance informing “you are here”, a bar selling beers for $3, and posters of the region’s infamous sharks.
Here, tired seafarers can use wi-fi to call home, rest on lounges, play pool or table tennis, use piles of donated copies of New Idea to practise English, buy souvenirs, or secure a ride to the shops.
“It’s a relief [for them] to be able to know they can come to shore, use the facilities at the seafarers’ centre, which is all free and voluntary,” Mr Lochowicz said.
He said while the food onboard the ships was generally good, the sailors liked to buy Australian wine, baby formula, fresh vegetables, and popular fast food during their time onshore.
While it is an Anglican organisation, it welcomed sailors of all nationalities and faiths, with a prayer mat in the chapel to accommodate Muslim sailors.
Esperance is one of 27 port cities across Australia serviced by the Mission to Seafarers.
Similar services are provided by other organisations such as the Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre, which has 353 centres worldwide.
‘That’s the buzz’
Once a foreign ship arrives in Australia, its crew members are allowed to go to shore if they hold a maritime work visa.
An Australian Border Force spokesperson said, of the 350,000 maritime and transit visas issued nationally each year, desertions were rare and those caught fleeing would have their visa cancelled and be detained and removed from the country.
The spokesperson said there had been no desertions at the Esperance Port this year.
Mr Lochowicz pointed out that Esperance was far from an ideal escape point — given it was 900km from the nearest big city — but said he had seen rare instances when crewmen had made a run for it.
But on the whole, he said there was a great deal of trust between both parties.
That’s why he said his favourite part of the job was when that effort paid off.
“There’s nothing like coming back to the spot where we are right now at night and all the seafarers getting out of the bus to go back to the ship and they say ‘Thank you, sir. Thank you very much for the day’,” he said.
“People in Esperance are really friendly towards the seafarers.
“And the guys come back and tell us what a great town we’ve got, how friendly the people are and how willing they are to help them out.
“And that’s the buzz. When that feedback comes back we know we’ve done our job.”
‘It can be beautiful, it can be ugly, it can be fierce’
Compassion for seafarers is evident from the centre’s two mainstays, Mr Lochowicz and Reverend Roe.
Mr Lochowicz traced this back to one day in the late 1980s when he was working on a pilot vessel in the Western Australian town of Dampier.
News broke that a ship he’d recently guided out had sunk.
He said there were no survivors.
It was the first thing he thought of after moving to Esperance, a town he’d fallen in love with during his fishing days, and was encouraged to join the seafarers’ centre.
“Then it came back to me — that time when I saw those guys for the last time, all waving happily to me while they sailed off, and not knowing that they were going to all die in the next couple of days,” he said.
“That sort of hit a bit of a string with me.
“And so yeah, that’s why I volunteered for the job.”
That was 12 and a half years ago and Mr Lochowicz had been “happy ever since”.
It certainly seems a fitting job for a man who has spent his life with the ocean — from surfing around Australia in his youth and working in abalone and tuna fishing industries, before moving to the maritime sector.
“I’m an Aquarius,” he said, with a smile.
“And the ocean has always brought joy and happiness.
“It’s the closest thing you can get to real nature, when it comes down to the real nitty-gritty of it.”
He said the love tended to be shared by those who spent their lives onboard the world’s cargo ships.
“They see sharks at sea. They see lots of whales. At night-time they see big areas of fluorescent stuff in the water, and krill,” he said.
“Sea life can be like that — it can be beautiful, it can be ugly, it can be fierce.”
Keeping the show on the road
Before he became a Reverend, Frank Roe was another close acquaintance of the world’s oceans having served in the navy.
“So I know [seafarers] get isolated. It can be a lonely life. It’s a tough life,” Reverend Roe said.
“That’s why the wi-fi here is so popular, so they can call home.”
Reverend Roe said the seafarers also relished the comparative peace and quiet of shore.
“They certainly come in here and sleep,” he said.
“It’s quite extraordinary to be onboard a thing that’s vibrating all the while you’re on it, for three or four months.”
Reverend Roe said he no longer knew what his favourite part of the job was — he’d been doing it so long.
“It’s just part of my life, part of my routine,” he said.
“The two of us, we’ve got to keep the show on the road.”
And they certainly do that well, returning young Mr Casumpang back to the ship before his 6:00pm shift.
Two days later, the ship can be seen making its way out of the Esperance Port, with the cadet crewman ending his 20th day as a seafarer setting off into a south-coast sunset.