Celebrating 200 years of seafarer support

2018 marks the 200th anniversary for Sailors’ Society – one of the largest and most comprehensive international seafarers’ support charities. Despite numerous activities planned or underway throughout the year to mark this momentous occasion, Sailors’ Society’s CEO Stuart Rivers said the work to support seafarers and their communities continues in earnest. Daniel Barnes reports.

Sailior's Society


Stuart Rivers, CEO, Sailors’ Society

The venue: The City of London Tavern, Bishopsgate Street, London. The date: March 18th, 1818. Here, under the chairmanship of Mr Benjamin Shaw, MP, a new society known as the Port of London Society was established to address the religious needs of seamen.  

200 years later and now known as Sailors’ Society, the charity is a fully global operation working in over 90 ports in almost 30 countries and has, quite understandably, a fair few tales to tell.

So to mark this 200-year milestone, Sailors’ Society has published a commemorative book aptly titled ‘200 Stories from the Sea’, which features 200 stories taken from the society’s archives.

“There are some fascinating stories in the book, including the one about Chaplain John Williams, who unfortunately was eaten by cannibals on the island of Erromango,” said Sailors’ Society CEO Stuart Rivers. “There’s also the one about the Beatles visiting our centre in Hamburg and jamming on the piano there. Having just come back from Hamburg where I stayed at one of the seamen’s hostels, I did try to find a piano to see if I could knock out a couple of Beatles tunes, but no luck!

“There’s also the story of how one of our chaplains in the First World War was in a PoW camp with captured sailors and was even there giving them spiritual and practical guidance in that context.

“The commitment shown by these people and the challenges they faced back then is extraordinary. I think you will be preasantly surprised when you see the book; it really is fascinating. I don’t want to give too much away as we want people to buy a copy!”

This high-end coffee-table-style book will be available to purchase from late April. A run of 200 limited edition hardback copies with commemorative sleeve and a certificate of authenticity will also be made available for £85, and buyers will be invited to add a donation to round it up to… yes, you’ve guessed it… £200.

Then and now
Reflecting and comparing the role of the Society 200 years ago with today, Stuart said there are as many similarities as differences.

“Shipping is a much more regulated industry now, and that is both a help and a hindrance at times; actually getting access to some ships can be difficult.

“The way that we meet the needs of seafarers has changed significantly through the use of technology and communications. Even as recently as 40 or 50 years ago, seafarers would have written letters home, and posted them from the next port. Now communication is such that there is an expectation that it’s instantaneous – even if access isn’t widespread.”

The charity kicked off its anniversary celebrations in January at Trinity House in London with a launch event that included guests from across the industry, Westminster and parliament. Sailors’ Society’s second Wellness at Sea conference was held on March 16th, ahead of a grand anniversary celebratory service at Southwark Cathedral on April 24th.

“We are expecting more than 700 people to attend and are putting a marquee up outside the Cathedral for a reception afterwards,” said Stuart. “In addition to inviting people from the industry, we are also bringing in a lot of our chaplains from abroad. We are hoping to have some royal presence too, so it should be a really big event.”


The new HMS Victory BySea coffee has been launched in partnership with The National Museum of the Royal Navy to celebrate Sailors’ Society’s 200th birthday and to raise money for the two maritime charities.

HMS Victory coffee launch
Also in honour of its 200-year anniversary, Sailors’ Society has expanded its BySea coffee brand by partnering with the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Named after Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous flagship, the new HMS Victory coffee – a medium strength Columbian with notes of toffee apple and blackcurrant – was launched onboard the ship in February.

HMS Victory (the ship, not the coffee) is a 104-gun Royal Navy vessel launched in 1765 and best known for her work at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Today, placed permanently into dry dock in Portsmouth Harbour, the ship is visited by 25 million visitors as a museum of the sailing navy and is the oldest commissioned warship
in the world.

“More than 100 years ago, Sailors’ Society was fundraising with busts of Lord Nelson made from his famous victory, and now with the support and permission of The National Museum of the Royal Navy, we are continuing to raise much needed funds which will help seafarers around the world,” said Stuart.

“100% of the profits of all the coffee that we sell go towards Sailors’ Society’s work, with a percentage going to The National Museum of the Royal Navy. It really is a social enterprise approach to funding charitable work.”

At home, in port, at sea
Amidst the launches, lunches and revelries during this bicentennial year, the day-to-day actions of Sailors’ Society continue in earnest – at home, in port and at sea.  

At home, the charity helps keep seafarers and loved ones in touch during the long months apart and liaises with families if a seafarer falls ill or is in trouble. The charity also builds storm-proof houses, medical centres and classrooms and provides educational grants.

In port, chaplains and volunteers visit crews on board ships offering everything from a friendly ear to transport into town. And at sea, the charity’s ground-breaking Wellness at Sea training programme and new Wellness App help equip seafarers for a life at sea focusing on five key areas of wellness: spiritual, emotional, physical, intellectual and social wellbeing.

According to Stuart, issues surrounding the mental health of crews “is one of the topics which is being much talked about within the industry at the moment, to the extent that everyone believes it is the main issue, but we shouldn’t overlook the other aspects of crew wellbeing as well.

“The relationship between those five key areas is key. This was encompassed in the Wellness at Sea conference in March, where we discussed the importance of taking a holistic view to seafarer health and wellbeing.”

The Wellness at Sea programme comprises of a variety of tools including a coaching course, surveys, a free app and a soon to be launched e-learning platform, all of which aim to promote onboard fitness and wellbeing and in turn, help to minimise poor health or incidents at sea.  

“Although I’m not sure how we will achieve this, I am really keen to get the wellbeing training and education on board ships, utilising the improving technology and communications onboard vessels,” envisioned Stuart. “If a seafarer is suffering from depression, for example, we want them to be able to access resources while onboard without the need for an internet connection.

“We can’t affect communities in some of the countries where seafarers come from, but we can influence change within the shipping industry. I think there is a willingness to do that.”

Growth plans  – chaplains in China
With the charity seeing a steady growth year-on-year in terms of the number of chaplains representing Sailors’ Society and as a result, the number of ports seafarers can receive aid, Stuart said a big target for the near future is to penetrate the ports where of China. 
“During the course of this year, the plan is to add another five chaplains and we are looking in particular at China,” he said. “Currently, none of the maritime welfare charities are providing welfare services in China; there are facilities in China that Chinese seafarers can access but for visiting seafarers, there is little or no support available. We are also looking at some further growth in South America.”

Looking beyond the end of this year, the charity is currently working towards an ambitious five-year strategic plan. By 2022, Stuart hopes to increase the charity’s number of chaplains to 150 – an almost 50% increase on the current position.

“I believe this is a realistic ambition,” he declared. “The challenge of that level of growth is probably twofold. Firstly, we always want to put people where the need is greatest, and that isn’t necessarily the easiest place to operate from – China being a case in point.

“The second challenge – or potential barrier – is clearly financial; the greater our resources, the more it costs. We need to have the funds to support that.”

Building networks
To help ease the financial burden, the society is exploring an alternative approach by building a network of port affiliates – independent people who partner with Sailors’ Society – to create a ‘franchise-style’ model. Throughout 2018, Stuart said he is aiming to establish 12 affiliates in North America.

“We already have six, including Houston and Quebec, so we are doing pretty well,” he said. “We are testing the model in North America because across the US and Canada there tends not to be large welfare providers. They are all pretty small – a one provider for port-type approach.

“What’s in it for those individuals who become affiliates is firstly, they can work under the umbrella of a bigger organisation,” explained Stuart. “Secondly, we can make our various technologies available to them, which they probably couldn’t afford as an independent chaplain. Thirdly, and I believe most importantly, if they are dealing with a problem in their port, they can access the rest of our network so that we can provide support to the family back home.”

Commitment to community development
Many people familiar with Sailors’ Society’s work will know the charity has a commitment to community development projects around the world. Pertinent projects remain ongoing in places such as the Philippines – where the rebuilding of communities following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 continues – and Bangladesh. Yet one that is particularly close to Stuart’s heart is a project at St Nicholas School in Ghana.

The primary school, which enables young children of seafaring families from deprived backgrounds to get an education, needs money to expand, so that it can offer a secondary education and vocational training to give students maritime careers.

“Four years ago, I visited the school which had only been running for a year or two and had no more than 20 pupils. Year-on-year, they have added another classroom and every time I go to Ghana I visit, I see it grow, and I meet the kids. They now have around 100 pupils in the school and continue to grow. Sailors’ Society has provided funding for the building project to help the school expand.

“We are also providing funding for their Sea Cadet corps which runs within the school to hopefully encourage these young people to pursue careers at sea when they are older. The Ghanaian Navy also comes in to train them and do drills. Seeing the school develop is just fantastic.”

In Bangladesh, Sailors’ Society is currently providing a disaster preparedness centre that also acts as a community and educational centre, and in Chennai, India, a mobile medical unit has been launched to deliver basic medical care to visiting and retired seafarers.

“There are a whole range of programmes for this year, and we are really grateful that our board of trustees is supporting all these new and exciting ventures, which all contribute to the overall wellbeing of seafarers and their families,” acknowledged Stuart.

Shipping’s partner of choice
As for the future direction of Sailors’ Society and the roles and responsibilities shipping companies play in the ongoing quest to keep crews happy, healthy and working at optimum operational levels, Stuart’s overarching message to the shipping industry was twofold.

“Firstly, I am not afraid to disrupt the present in order to build the future. Secondly, we want to continue to be the partner of choice for the industry.

“The reason that we want to do that is that I believe we have a common goal which is the wellbeing of seafarers. We can’t solve these problems on our own, but I think that together we can make huge headway in solving the challenges that face this group of people.”