After a 7 month long stay in Philadelphia, the Nicolina and her crew finally got underway last week. I was able to be on the pier as she pulled away, and I found myself in a reflective mood. Maybe it was the unseasonably warm weather, the perfect sunset down the river, or the atmosphere on board, but I couldn’t help but get somewhat sentimental. Just 3 months, to the day, into my time at SCI, I can’t help but think of the Nikol H as the benchmark against which I compared my adjustment to SCI.
The day before my move to Philadelphia, my mom sat reading the Philadelphia Inquirer and called out to me, “Hey Trish, I think your boss is in the newspaper!” Lo and behold, my mom happened to pick up the newspaper the day the first article by Linda Loyd about the Nikol H and SCI was published. As I sat and read the piece about what was going on with this ship stuck in the river, I wondered what world this was that I was getting myself into.
As my time at SCI actually began, the Nikol H and her crew were the talk of the office. Her plight was an astounding story, an immediate insight into the hardships that seafarers face. The Nikol H was one of the first ships I ever set foot on and the first crew I ever really got to know. I was lucky enough to accompany the crew to the customs house when they got approved for their shore passes. The feeling of joy surrounding the event was tangible. The crew emerging from the customs house, smiles on their faces and papers in hand, free at last, is a sight I will never forget.
Our relationship with the crew continued as their fate, which has been uncertain for so long, gained a little more clarity. As a new buyer emerged, the guys were anxious about their journeys home and receiving their final wage, Mesfin made a commitment to visit every day to ensure things would go smoothly. I occasionally accompanied him, learning about seafarer contracts and payment plans as we talked through the crew’s worries.
Around this time, I was almost ready to start ship visiting on my own. After weeks of shadowing other ship visitors and learning as much as I could, the only hurdle I had left was to learn to drive to the vans. The huge, intimidating, 15 passenger vans. Luckily, I was sent out on my first driving day with Tony, who, from my first time visiting with him, went (and still goes) above and beyond to teach me the ropes and be supportive. One of the things on the docket for the day was a pickup for shore leave at the Nikol H. The guys were thrilled as they piled into the van, “Oh, you’re our driver today?!” and “You’re driving!” were among the comments made. I even got a few driving “tips” from the captain.
That crew was allowed to go home when the vessel was sold, and although I didn’t get to say goodbye, I thought of them fondly as they traveled home.
The new crew came on and worked diligently to get the ship ready to sail for over a month. They were doing hard work and working long hours, but it was all worth it when the sail date came closer and closer. We decided to throw them a farewell luncheon of traditional Filipino food on board as a way to celebrate their imminent departure. The lunch was attended by an SCI board member, Linda Loyd from the Inquirer, and the SCI staff. With everyone in the office doing varying things that day, as I pulled up to the gangway, I realized, that to some extent, I was running this event. I had lots of help, of course, from my wonderful co-workers, but somehow, without noticing it, I had gone from the newbie who only rode in the passenger seat to a full-fledged staff member of this organization. The lunch was a little chaotic, but overall was a successful event, and Loyd did a story on it that was featured in the next morning’s newspaper. I had gone from sitting in my parent’s kitchen reading an article in the Inquirer, to facilitating the follow-up article in a matter of months.
Flash forward two weeks to when the vessel was actually ready to sail. We had been contacted by a reporter from KYW who was intrigued by the story and was interested in being on the pier when the Nicolina set sail. So we coordinated with him, and headed down to the Navy Yard around 2PM. While my last interaction with the press at the luncheon had been chaotic, this experience was the exact opposite. The atmosphere on board and on the pier was calm. No one was rushing, no one was panicked, and everyone was prepared for this day that had been such a long time coming. The ship’s agent, Rodney, who had been her since the beginning, was on sight to see the departure. The docking pilot was the same man, who, 7 months ago, had brought the vessel into her original berth at Pier 82. Everything had come full circle.
There were no speeches, toasts or fanfare, just a small crowd watching a vessel go on her way. There was a definite sense of closure as we watched the silhouettes of the seafarers on deck get smaller and smaller, and as I looked around the pier and realized it looked like an entirely different place without the Nicolina pulled up alongside.
The situation on the Nikol H was a terrible one and the seafarers suffered many injustices, but when I look back on my time at SCI, I think I will look back at these few months with fondness. They were here for the beginning of my time in Philadelphia, they were here for my assimilation into this crazy world called the maritime industry. Now, as I sit at my desk writing this, I have vesselfinder.com open on my computer, with the map set to track the Nicolina and I will enjoy following her on her journey, watching where in the world she goes. Even though she is now just a yellow triangle on a map pointed south, I will always remember the two crews she carried, who taught me so much more than I ever could have imagined.
Trish Johnston joined SCI as part of the Episcopal Church’s Servant Year program which exposes recent college graduates to different missions and puts their talents to use. She is a trained ship visitor, directs communication initiatives, and will create a new volunteer program during her one year tenure. This is one of her many stories based on her first few months experience at SCI and it provides insight into SCI’s role in befriending the invisible seafarer.