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On the Job

He helps bring sailors to a safe harbor

The Rev. Stephen Cushing is executive director of the New England Seafarers Mission.
The Rev. Stephen Cushing is executive director of the New England Seafarers Mission.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Is there anything more difficult than a life at sea? A seafarer’s lonely existence has been compared to being in jail — with the added chance of drowning. A maritime crew member typically spends six to nine months afloat, working 10- to 14-hour days, alienated from family and friends. The psychological stress is enormous, and when they dock in port, sailors might only have a few hours to go ashore. A friendly face, a helping hand, a listening ear, a spiritual adviser — these are welcome refuges. That’s where Rev. Stephen Cushing, 58, steps in. He’s executive director and senior chaplain of the New England Seafarers Mission, located in the Black Falcon Terminal on the South Boston Waterfront. When a cargo or cruise ship arrives, Cushing is available not just for consultation but also runs a MoneyGram room, Internet cafe, mail stop, concession shop, library, and chapel to help meet sailors’ needs. The Globe spoke with Cushing about his ministry.

“An oil tanker worker once said to me, ‘Life at sea is always unnatural.’ The basic tenet of shipping is that a ship only makes money when it is moving. The industry constantly strives to minimize time in port — when it’s docked — in order to maximize profit. But the more time at sea, the more ‘unnatural’ the life of the seafarer. They are faced with longer work loads, greater stress, and inadequate rest.

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“They work for corporations whose offices they will never enter and whose management they may never see. Their condition is ripe for being taken advantage of. Our seafarers mission is to preserve the humanity of seafarers.

“There are some commonalities I can depend on when I visit a ship: Sailors want to reconnect with family, decompress, maybe sightsee on shore. Within that is a web of intricacies that needs to be navigated. Maybe the ship has a labor problem, a medical crisis, or [a] deeper issue to be walked through.

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“I’ve kept track during my tenure here, and I’ve interacted with officers or crew members with 162 nationalities in the industrial and cruise shipping fleet. We also operate at Conley Container Terminal in South Boston, as well as the Citgo Braintree petroleum terminal and Sprague TRT liquid bulk terminal in Weymouth. Containers, oil tankers, car ships, and LNG are usually in port for about eight to 10 hours; bulk carriers (salt, scrap metal, food products) stay for one to three days; and cruise ships are in typically in and out in 10 hours.

“The industry is dominated by Filipinos, accounting for about 30 percent of all seafarers, followed by Russian, Indian, and Ukrainian seafarers. Think of yourself in another country every time you hit land. You are faced with different cultures, languages, customs. You most appreciate the friendly face who offers the advice or service. We let them know they are not forgotten.

“I was in the seafood business previously and worked directly with fishermen. So I know how hard the life is. But have I ever worked on a ship before or been at sea? A lot of people ask me that. No, I wish I had walked in those shoes, but I haven’t, mostly because of one unfortunate fact: I get seasick.”


Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy.atoji@gmail.com.