Seafarer Charity’s Digital and Commercial ‘Appenings

Whilst ever-improving connectivity makes the world seem a smaller place, merchant seafarers, who are typically spending 9-12 months away from home and surrounded by water, may tend to disagree. This time away from home and land has and always will be an accepted part of a career at sea, but for the charity Sailors’ Society, improving communication lines for these people is one of its missions. Daniel Barnes spoke to Sailors’ Society CEO, Stuart Rivers about the charity’s new found position as a ‘digital platform provider’ following the recent launch of a new smartphone app which will help link 28 welfare organisations together in the palm of your hand.

In March 2016, Stuart Rivers celebrated three years in his post as CEO of Sailors’ Society; the charity that, with its staff of professional chaplains working in 82 ports across 26 countries, offered friendship, pastoral support and practical welfare help to 345,000 of the 1.5 million men and women working at sea in 2015.

Over this time, Stuart has overseen the charity’s tireless work to ensure the life of a seafarer gets help and support when it’s needed.

Sailors’ Society CEO, Stuart Rivers

Sailors’ Society CEO, Stuart Rivers

“In 2014, we invested £2.6 million in seafarer welfare – a significant increase on the previous year,” said Stuart. “And once 2015’s figures are finalised, I expect that figure to be close to the £3 million mark.” 

Whilst you would be forgiven in assuming Sailors’ Society works solely in ports, assisting crews when they arrive in foreign, faraway lands, and the associated challenges this brings, a critical area of this nearly-200 year old charity is the support it provides to the families of those at sea.

Continuing to Rebuild the Philippines 
Take the Philippines as a poignant example. The country has one of the highest percentages of nationalities working at sea. In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the country, flattening entire towns and villages and killing thousands. What initially began as the Typhoon Haiyan Emergency Appeal, has since transformed into the charity’s ‘Rebuild Philippines’ programme. 

“Since Typhoon Haiyan hit, we have committed over £750,000 in re-building the Philippines,” said Stuart. 

With more homes and medical centres planned, to date Sailors’ Society has funded 48 new typhoon and earthquake resilient homes for seafarers’ families, ten fishing boats for seafarers’ families, three classrooms doubling as emergency community shelters, two dedicated medical centres/community centres that whole villages can benefit from and one Family Outreach Worker providing trauma counselling and specialist support for families of seafarers who are starting to rebuild their lives. 

“There are still people living in makeshift shelters. The charity has committed for the long term to the Philippines, on the basis that one third of seafarers come from the Philippines. You could therefore say that one third of our effort in supporting seafaring families should be in the Philippines.”

Whilst the Philippines project has remained a constant action area for the Sailors’ Society in recent years, one new direction the charity has taken over the past 12 months is into the digital world and the support it can offer the entire seafaring community. 

Two April 2016 App Launches
In 2015, the Chapplaincy app was launched. This free download allows real-time reporting from the global spread of chaplains. Each chaplain can, for example, submit a ship visit report from their mobile phone, and along with the narrative can include photos and statistics (such as how many seafarers they engaged with, type of vessel and nationalities).

It proved a popular tool for the charity’s chaplains, but six months down the line, by late summer of 2015, Stuart and his team decided the potential of this app exceeded the sole use of Sailors’ Society chaplains. “We came to the conclusion that whilst this app was a significant improvement on our previous reporting, we realised that in order for it to be fully effective, we should make it available to the other 27 worldwide welfare providers so that we can truly achieve continuity of care around the world. So that is what we have done.” 

Students at Sulangan Integrated School on their new bikes

Students at Sulangan Integrated School on their new bikes

This new approach has led to an app re-branding. The charity has licensed a version of its Chapplaincy smartphone technology to ICMA. Developed with the support of MarineTraffic, the ‘Ship Visitor’ app enables real-time activity reporting and maintains a history of ship visits and support provided to seafarers. Data can then be accessed by chaplains in other ports and, subject to confidentiality and data protection policies, can be used to provide ongoing care and assistance as ship and crew continue their voyage.

Reverend Richard Kilgour, General Secretary of ICMA, said: “ICMA is mindful of the immense importance of this development, which strengthens our international collaborative relationships as seafarer societies. Brought about by Sailors’ Society, this initiative will empower those in front line ministry to bring immense benefit for the well-being of seafarers and is warmly welcomed by our 28 member organisations operating seafarer ministry in ports worldwide.”

Following a pilot phrase lasting the first few months of this year, ‘Ship Visitor’ went live on April 1st. Seemingly catching the smartphone bug, April also saw the charity launch another app. The new ‘Wellness at Sea’ app enables seafarers to track their own wellbeing whilst at sea.

“We have been developing a ‘Wellness at Sea’ training programme for the past year or so, working with shipping companies who have effectively brought us in as training consultants to deliver this training to their crews,” said Stuart. “We have been training seafarers in how to manage their own wellbeing whilst at sea across five areas; physical wellness, emotional and social wellness, intellectual wellness and spiritual wellness.” 

The app is an extension of this and allows seafarers to track their wellbeing on a daily basis, using a ‘smiley face’ type system across those five areas. The app enables them to view their own wellness profile over the last 30 days whilst also offering information on how they can improve their wellness.

When asked why the charity is investing so much into digital technology, Stuart listed three primary reasons. “Firstly, efficiency,” he said. “Donors want to see that we are running an efficient organisation; secondly, it re-positions Sailors’ Society within the welfare sector; and thirdly, both of these apps potentially improve seafarers’ lives by improving their welfare.”

Whilst smartphones are now readily in the pockets or lockers of seafarers, one key element of a smartphone’s appeal is not so readily available on board a vast majority of ships; internet access. To overcome this, the ‘Wellness at Sea’ app is not dependent on having an internet connection for day to day use. It will store the data locally on the phone and then when they have access to Wi-Fi it will log their status and refresh the data. 

But according to Stuart, and many of his welfare associates, shipping companies and internet service providers should be doing more to keep ship crews connected. 

“For companies that say that all their ships have internet access, I think this statement needs qualifying; is it privately available to all crew, or just officers and is it just for email or can seafarers browse,” challenged Stuart. 

“The generation that’s coming up now is a connected generation. I recently received feedback from one young person who attended an education seminar about seafarers who said: ‘Why would I put myself in that situation at sea when my life is online? That’s where I exist!’ We are reaching a tipping point where young people – who would perhaps consider a career at sea – are put off by the fact that they will be disconnected.

“What I hope to see soon is that either satellite bandwidth significantly falls in price or we will see other methods of connecting becoming available, such as Google’s Project Loon.” 

One Country at a Time
Under Stuart’s stewardship, Sailors’ Society has created a country specific approach to the charity’s presence. Rather than introducing one chaplain in Indonesia, then another in Myanmar, then another in… well, you get the point, Stuart has focused on building infrastructure in the countries in the greatest need.

“We have increased our presence in Brazil and this year we are focussing on India. In 2015, we appointed a regional co-ordinator in India and this year, we are registering as a charity there and appointing a further six chaplains. Once we’ve done that, we will then look at another country.”

Assisting the generous donations Sailors’ Society receives, the organisation has, for the past 20 years, turned a profit on three charity shops in the UK. And if the afore-written developments aren’t enough for Stuart and his team to contend with, enhancing the commercialisation of the charity – another imperative attention of Stuart’s – is hoped to keep activity levels and the coffers brimming. 

Stirring up Commercial Efforts
This year, the three charity shops located in Aberdeen, Hull and Farnborough, will be strengthened with a south England fleet of four. With the charity’s headquarters located in Southampton, Stuart said he expects at least one of the new shops to be on the doorstep. 

But whilst you could argue that opening up more charity shops, along with the charity’s decision to increase its recycling capacity, aren’t the most outlandish of ideas, even if they are effective in boosting commercial lines, the predictable tag most certainly cannot be labelled on Sailors’ Society’s other plan – creating and selling its own brand of coffee. 

“Companies may not be in a position to give us a grant, a donation or sponsorship, but actually they can support us by buying Sailors’ Society coffee which not only brings us income, but also tells our story on the packaging,” Stuart said, explaining his thought process. 

The charity is already looking into three different blends from three different continents, opting to pick the beans out of Brazil, India and Madagascar. It is no coincidence that these countries, whilst proving exceptional quality coffee beans already, have been chosen due to the current and planned levels of work Sailors’ Society is undertaking in those regions.

Already cementing a partnership with a Fairtrade company, Stuart said Sailors’ Society coffee will go further than the current requirements needed to get the Fairtrade insignia on a product. 

“When you look at Fairtrade products, it’s all about a fair deal for the producer; transportation of the product is not included in the accreditation. So you can buy Fairtrade coffee, but there’s no guarantee that it was shipped by a Fairtrade shipping company. If you had evidence that the shipping company was 100 per cent committed to good levels of welfare on board the ship, then you’d have a complete Fairtrade supply chain; whilst we have only just started this venture, it is our ambition for the future.” 

With taste testing underway, Stuart is hopeful that Sailors’ Society coffee could be available by the end of the summer. How much sweeter will that first sip of coffee in the morning taste knowing you are supporting such a great cause? Fingers crossed the charity can find the right blend of business to bring this to market!