Profession : seafarer

Sailing the high seas. It’s a job that many of us have dreamed about, and one that has inspired so many songs and stories. But it is a job that has changed tremendously over the years...


Roy Voltaire S. Culla and Joseph V. Mirabete, two Filipino seafarers on their first visit
to the Port of Montreal.

Mariners’ House of Montreal is surprisingly quiet on this afternoon. More visitors are expected this evening. At the centre, located on Alexandra Pier, near the Iberville Passenger Terminal, two seafarers focus on their computer screens. They are writing to their families and enjoying a Quebec-brewed beer. One of them then gets up, quickly accepting an invitation from a Mariners’ House volunteer for a game of table tennis.

The seafarers’ ship, the M/V LONE, docked at the Port of Montreal’s Bickerdike Terminal the previous night. The vessel was transporting six brand-new railcars from Germany. Roy Voltaire S. Culla, the ship’s cook, and steward Joseph V. Mirabete were happy to set foot in Montreal after a long voyage across the Atlantic. The two Filipinos were visiting the city for the very first time.

And they were delighted to stop in at Mariners’ House of Montreal. “It’s cool! It’s nice and clean compared to other centres,” Joseph says. Roy agrees, adding: “What I like most are the people.” He is referring to the employees, chaplains and volunteers who drive the seafarers to Mariners’ House from their ships, who welcome them, and who are always willing to talk and listen to them, teach them about Montreal and offer their assistance.

a taste for adventure ?

Roy Culla has been sailing the world’s oceans for nine years, eight months out of 12. Joseph Mirabete has been sailing for three years. Are they adventurers intrigued by the thought of travelling to faraway places?

This is how many seafarers still look at the job, but not so for these two gentlemen. They became mariners to help support their families. The job pays very well compared to what they might hope to earn back home. “I was a cook in the Philippines,” Roy said. “I had two jobs in order to make ends meet: I also worked as a truck driver. And it still wasn’t enough to send my four children to school.” Roy’s eldest is a nursing student. His second child is studying to be an engineer, and his third is studying transportation. The youngest is still in high school. Joseph has three children between 4 and 10 years old. He wants his children to lead happy lives. Sadly, they already have lost their mother.

“Working as a seafarer is for young people who are looking for adventure and who want to live it up around the world has become a myth,” says Jason Zuidema, the Protestant chaplain at Mariners’ House. He sees thousands of seafarers each year, and more and more of them are taking to the seas in order to provide a better life for their loved ones.


Seafarers like to leave a little something behind prior to sailing out of
Montreal. It might make them feel more at home when they return. At
Mariners' House, they pin their photo or a bank note from their country
on a giant mural.  


life at sea

A mariner sailing the high seas might leave his home in January, for example, and return only in October.

He may visit many countries. Roy has been to each and every continent in his nine years at sea. “But a seafarer must accept the fact that he might spend 80 percent of his life in close quarters with a small group of 20 to 25 other mariners,” Dr. Zuidema says. With the automation of operations, crews have become smaller and port stays are shorter: they can be anywhere from one to four days. Petroleum tankers are often in port for only 24 hours. Container ships are frequently in and out of port in 48 hours as loading and unloading procedures are carried out quickly.” 

Sometimes seafarers have so much to do aboard ship while in port that they simply do not have time to go ashore. Other times, in certain parts of the world, they remain on board for security reasons. “If they don’t know the culture of the country they are visiting and they are carrying cash, they can be easy prey,” Dr. Zuidema says. “The seafarers who come to Montreal have often not been ashore for eight to 12 weeks.”


Ministry to Seafarers chaplains Jason Zuidema and David Rozeboom welcome and
assist mariners.

a multi-ethnic world

With globalization, crews have become multi-ethnic. Previously, seafarers would be hired according to where their ship was registered. Today, Filipinos and Indians make up the majority of ships’ crews. For example, between October and December 2012, Mariners’ House welcomed 633 seafarers from India and 448 from the Philippines, compared to 371 from Canada, 175 from China, 131 from the Ukraine, 54 from Burma, 45 from Indonesia, 40 from Russia, 36 from Germany, 30 from the United Kingdom and Ireland, 29 from Montenegro, etc.

Cramped quarters and culture shock are among the challenges facing a mariner sailing the high seas. It takes strong nerves to get the job done. So it’s refreshing when a voyage takes seafarers to a place that is as welcoming as Montreal’s Mariners’ House. “Many are bored and appreciate human contact, Dr. Zuidema says. We sometimes have very animated discussions. It is good for them to be able to talk, to share what their life is like, and to see other people.” They are able to open up to the centre’s chaplains in complete confidence.


Three organizations for seafarers

Patrice Caron, an inspector with the International Transport
Workers' Federation, looks after seafarers' interests.


Three organizations are responsible for the well-being of seafarers. Mariners’ House looks after their morale. Transport Canada ensures that regulations are being followed. Its representatives can board a ship to verify that it is living up to minimum standards.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation ensures that mariners enjoy good working conditions aboard ships. “ I make sure that employment agreements are respected, that the working environment is good, and that the ship is clean,” says Patrice Caron, a former seafarer who is now an ITF inspector for Quebec and Ontario. He is based in Montreal, halfway between St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes ports.

Among his working tools is a computer program that features the name of every ship in the world and in which he files his reports. He visits about 110 ships each year. “The Port of Montreal is very well thought of throughout the world for how it treats seafarers,” Mr. Caron says. “Mariners know that regulations are enforced that we look after their safety. They know that we will welcome them with open arms and that we will take good care of them.”

quebec seafarers

Working conditions for seafarers are improving all of the time, in particular for mariners from Quebec who, for the most part, sail aboard Canadian-flagged ships. “Canada is recognized as a very active country within the International Maritime Organization and very diligent in matters with respect to laws that protect mariners,” said Claude Mailloux, executive director of the Human Resources Sectorial Committee of the Maritime Industry.

Most seafarers are unionized and their salaries, negotiated under collective agreements, are very good. Life aboard ships continues to improve, too. Most Canadian-flagged ships have the Internet, which helps mariners stay in touch with their families. Also, efforts are being made to respond to work-life balance demands for the new generation of mariners. More regular work cycles and shorter times at sea are among the initiatives being taken. In short, the maritime industry continues to adapt.