New chaplain Alipate Tuineau and new manager Dennis Andersen have their work cut out for them, as the growing Gladstone port sees the numbers of seafarers soar.
New chaplain Alipate Tuineau and new manager Dennis Andersen have their work cut out for them, as the growing Gladstone port sees the numbers of seafarers soar. Christopher Chan

Mission provides welcoming port for overseas sailors

MORE than 20 of them stand in a small mob, scuffing the dirt and holding their shirts up to their noses, defence against the dusty air of the QAL dock.

All in their 20s and 30s, the men see the slow-moving bus and they're like kids on a school excursion.

We pull up, and they jostle on, beaming and saying, "Good afternoon", before shoving for the back seats.

It's a full bus now, and Mission to Seafarers volunteer driver Bob eases the 47-seater around.

It's 2.30pm, and the daily afternoon tour of wharves - RG Tanna, Auckland Point, Barney Point and South Trees - has taken more than an hour.

The bus is dwarfed by the huge trappings of Gladstone's shipping industry, looming black coal ships and towering cranes, monster-sized Lego pieces on their way to Curtis Island.

But for hundreds of seafarers who dock at Gladstone every week, it's a small saviour.

New manager at the mission, Dennis Andersen, explains the service is the only option seafarers who dock at Gladstone have to actually get onto dry land.

"Everyone sits on the shore and sees these magnificent ships going up and down, but they forget that there might be 15 or 20 people on board, who may have been at sea for months," he says.

"These really are the forgotten people - and if they can't get off those ships, they really do become like a floating prison."

At the mission's marina centre, seafarers can change money, buy supplies, and just relax with the pool and table tennis tables.

But it's the international phone booths, and the "wi-fi available" sign, that make the men's eyes light up.

Gladstone’s not-for-profit Mission to Seafarers helps sailors get their bearings back on the land after long stints at sea.
Gladstone’s not-for-profit Mission to Seafarers helps sailors get their bearings back on the land after long stints at sea.

"The money they can earn on these ships is good, compared to what's available in their countries," Dennis explains.

"It means they can look after their families - but it comes at the cost of months away at a time.

"A lot of the ships now sit just outside the port for a couple weeks, waiting for coal to come in - all the crews can do is sit and look at the lights of Gladstone. They can't even call home."

So when they do get in, Dennis says the mission's goal is simple.

"We just want to show them some Aussie hospitality," he says.

The not-for-profit was established here in 1970, with the support of the port authority.

First based at Auckland Point, funding from the International Transport Workers' Federation helped build the current centre on Gladstone Ports Corporation land at Alf O'Rourke Dr in 1997.

The mission receives some ongoing funding from the federation, and much support comes from local supporters, from Gladstone's churches and maritime communities, as well as Gladstone Ports Corporation.

But even more crucial for the service is its handful of volunteers.

Driving buses, changing money or just sharing a cuppa with the seafarers - Dennis says it's rewarding work.

Everyone sits on the shore and sees these magnificent ships going up and down, but they forget that there might be 15 or 20 people on board, who may have been at sea for months

"A lot of these blokes don't have a lot of English, so you get good at sign language pretty fast!" he laughs.

But like many charity organisations, the boom has battered the mission.

Many retiree volunteers sold their homes and left, while a few regular bus drivers took jobs with Stonestreet's when it got the LNG contract.

"You can't blame them, but it's left us with a balancing act - demand is growing, and we've got less people to respond," Dennis says.

A life-long central Queenslander, Dennis travels in from Gracemere.

His new role follows a business career, tackling anything from bread and milk runs to newsagencies and bakeries.

"It's opportunism, I guess - we just go where it's needed!" he laughs.

New Anglican chaplain Alipate Tuineau is from Tonga, but spent the past nine years studying in Canberra. He's already embracing the better weather.

His only maritime experience was catching ferries back home, but he's already led prayers on numerous coal ships.

On the other hand, Dennis has always been a keen sailor, and owns a 38-foot ketch.

"It's sitting in the Fitzroy, rusting out," he says ruefully. But he knows he's needed for bigger things.