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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 24, 2009
Seafarers’ center helps forgotten men from around the world
By Saranac Hale Spencer
ALBANY Dozens of languages and faiths that come up the Hudson River remain deck bound, afloat on the Port of Albany’s the muddy water.
“It’s a very isolated existence,” said Reverend William Hempel, who runs a ministry out of the seafarers’ center, a modest aluminum building dwarfed by latticed cranes stretching vainly skyward from the dull cement platform at the Port of Albany.
Most of what he does is practical helping sailors make phone calls or get basic necessities for hygiene. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus come through the port, he said, “I don't necessarily try to draw a fine line.”
It’s hard work, and constant work, to move across the sea, said Hempel, and, when a crew arrives, the men have been a long time since their last stop. They are gone from their families for eight to 12 months a year, he said, and cannot leave the ship when things go awry at home. One man learned of his wife’s death while in port, but could not leave to comfort his children. Another man came to port wanting only to check on his child’s recovery after surgery.
“Being able to make that phone call happen, that really helps his spirit,” Hempel said.
The strangest request came from a Ukrainian man, Hempel said. He needed a strut for his 1997 Plymouth Voyager. “Left front, please,” he said, Hempel recalled. He had the serial number and everything. Hempel found a member of his parish who was able to get it and returned the next day to find that the man had already gotten one. “This was his one chance,” to get it, Hempel said, smiling in earnest.
“These guys have it rough. If they can have a friend around,” Hempel trailed off. “We depend on them,” he said. If it snows, he said, municipalities around the area will salt the roads from a pile that came from Chile and sits near the pier. Loads of the corn grown in Albany County’s Hilltowns is shipped out by boat to Algeria, he said, concluding that 90 percent of the region’s commerce is maritime.
The necessity of their work hasn’t brought respect for seafarers, Hempel said, remembering the treatment given to the surviving crewmembers from the Stellamare, a ship that capsized in the Port of Albany six years ago.
Three men died that day and the largely Russian crew was loaded onto a CDTA bus after going to the hospital. They were treated like suspects, Hempel said, with some men in the December cold with no shoes.
“Especially since 9-11, everyone is considered a terrorist,” Hempel said, referring to the 2001 terrorists’ attacks. Unless they have the proper paperwork, crewmembers can’t leave their ship during their one to two days in port.
“They are courageous,” Hempel said. Seafarers, most of whom come from the Philippines, do the work not because they love it, but because they can support their families from it. “They don’t do it because of the sea,” he said. “That romantic stuff is no more.”
Volunteers at the seafarers’ center work all year long to welcome and accommodate crews. This time of year, they focus on making Christmas-at-sea boxes that contain hats, gloves, socks, toiletries, paper, pencils, movies, calling cards, and New York Maple syrup. The group is looking for more volunteers. The group’s mailing address is Albany Maritime Ministry, 475 State Street, Albany, NY 12203 and its phone number is 518-463-0571.