Safe harbour

Otago Seafarers Centre manager Shirley Farquhar, QSM, (80) with cruise-ship waiter Eduardo Gan ...
Otago Seafarers Centre manager Shirley Farquhar, QSM, (80) with cruise-ship waiter Eduardo Gan (42), of Manila. Photos by Linda Robertson.
Shirley Farquhar has been "interim" Seafarers Centre manager for 41 years.
Shirley Farquhar has been "interim" Seafarers Centre manager for 41 years.
rew from the Sea Princess use the pool table and the internet at the Seafarers Centre.
rew from the Sea Princess use the pool table and the internet at the Seafarers Centre.
Cruise-ship crew (clockwise from left) Jeffrey Rubio, of the Philippines, Stephen Anthony, of...
Cruise-ship crew (clockwise from left) Jeffrey Rubio, of the Philippines, Stephen Anthony, of India, Pete Sorrosa, of the Philippines, Allan Santos, of the Philippines, Darwin Brecio, of the Philippines, and Joel Monteiro, of India, make good use of...
The Otago Seafarers Centre has been based in this building in George St, Port Chalmers, since 1999.
The Otago Seafarers Centre has been based in this building in George St, Port Chalmers, since 1999.

Crew are the often overlooked component of New Zealand's thriving cruise-ship tourism industry. But at the Otago Seafarers Centre, crew know their needs will come first. Bruce Munro talks to Shirley Farquhar, who has been at the helm of the Port Chalmers sailors' sanctuary for four decades.

He is tall for a Filipino. Well built, neatly dressed and, of course, holding a smartphone.

Standing in the doorway, Eduardo Gan scans the back room of the Otago Seafarers Centre in Port Chalmers.

All the seats and some of the floor space is already taken by men cradling tablets and other internet-capable devices; heads down, intently scrolling and typing or chatting in hushed tones to loved ones thousands of kilometres away.

Mr Gan walks over to the kitchen bench, picks up an unused coffee mug and switches on the electric kettle.

Standing at the sink, filling the biscuit barrel with chocolate cookies, is a mature woman with short white curls, a friendly face and a grandmotherly air.

''Hello. How are you?'' a sprightly voice asks.

''I'm Shirley,'' Mrs Farquhar continues.

''Yes. I remember you,'' Mr Gan replies.

He arrived in port this mid-spring morning aboard the Sea Princess - a 261m-long, multi-storey floating hotel capable of carrying 3000 people.

A fortnight late due to technical problems, it is still the first of 79 cruise ships expected to visit Dunedin between now and early April.

Cruise ships are an increasingly important component of the region's tourism industry.

This season alone their passengers, each spending $100 to $150 a day in port, will inject an estimated $38 million into the local economy.

But Mr Gan is not one of today's almost 2000 passengers.

The 42-year-old is an assistant waiter, one of 900 crew. Crew members constitute an often overlooked third of all cruise ships' seagoing souls.

Completely forgotten? Not quite. Scattered around the globe are havens which provide a ''home away from home'' for seafarers in foreign ports.

In Dunedin, that refuge is the Otago Seafarers Centre, the oldest ''sailors' rest'' in the southern hemisphere.

Opened in 1872, the centre moved to its fourth (and present) premises in 1999; a salmon-coloured, two-storey building on George St, Port Chalmers, a stone's throw from the wharf.

The centre is open whenever vessels are in port: about four evenings a week catering to crews of visiting cargo freighters, and, on average, every other day during the six-month cruise ship season.

Here ships' crews will find space to relax, socialise, enjoy a cuppa and, most importantly, access free wifi to keep up with news and reconnect with family back home, wherever that may be.

Twelve ports around New Zealand have seafarers centres, operated mainly by volunteers from one or more of three faith-based organisations: the non-denominational International Sailors Society (ISS), the Catholic Apostleship of the Sea and the Anglican Mission to Seafarers.

The ISS-affiliated Port Chalmers centre is one of the busiest in New Zealand during cruise ship season, Mrs Farquhar says.

That is because, no matter whether the vessels are bound for, or coming from, Fiordland and Australia, crew have either been or are about to be several days without internet access.

It explains why most of the three dozen people in the centre today are busy bent over screens.

In front of the former Otago Savings Bank building, a couple of young Asian men are smoking.

Inside the large front room, the walls of which are adorned with framed prints of ships on the high seas and a large bookcase with a sign which states ''Free books'', four crew members are playing pool.

In the smaller back room, only Mr Gan is making himself a drink. And in the short hallway linking the two spaces, two telephone booths are empty.

Everywhere else, on every chair and on the floor, people, almost exclusively Asian men, are in quiet communion with another time zone and another place.

Here, ships' crew are the focus and their needs take priority, Mrs Farquhar says.

Some passengers do come in hoping to use the centre's two computers. It is possible, as long as no seafarers are wanting to use them.

''I had an American lady in here one day who wanted to use one,'' Mrs Farquhar says.

''I said, 'Would you like to take a seat, and you can use it when the men are finished'.

''She said, 'But this is the crew'.

''I replied, 'You are quite right madam. This place is for the crew. But you are quite welcome to wait'.

''Well, she stormed out.''

Recounting the incident makes Mrs Farquhar laugh. But she quickly continues in a more serious tone.

''It annoys me. We're all human. We've all got a job to do. If we didn't have these boys on the ship, she wouldn't be able to go for her cruise.''

Mrs Farquhar got involved with the Seafarers Centre in 1973.

Her husband Ian Farquhar, QSM, former director of shipping agency Tapley Swift and past chairman of Port Otago Ltd, had told her an interim manager was needed.

''And here I am, still here 41 years later,'' she laughs.

As manager, she takes care of day-to-day administration, buys supplies, co-ordinates volunteers and takes her turn volunteering at the centre each time a cruise ship is in town.

She often takes her latest knitting project along, so she can sit and interact with the crew.

''I love it. I love meeting them,'' she says.

''They often want to show me photos or a video from home ... I get as much pleasure out of seeing their families as they do showing me.''

In addition to raising a family, and involvement with Inner Wheel, First Presbyterian Church, and the Heart Foundation (for which she was awarded a Queen's Service Medal), Mrs Farquhar has been a member of the Seafarers Welfare Board of New Zealand for 27 years and its chairwoman for three terms.

She may be 80 years old, but says that is ''just a number. It's a state of mind''.

There are no immediate plans to abandon her ''boys''.

''Periodically, I would say to my husband, it's about time you got someone in,'' she says.

''It was like water off a duck's back ... `Oh, you'll be all right for a while', he'd say.''

Mrs Farquhar has no doubts the centre is providing a valuable service.

Life can be demanding on board, she says. For example, cruise ship crew who are not required to work when in port do not turn up at the centre during the morning as they used to.

''Since the [Costa] Concordia fell over and sank [after striking rocks off the coast of Italy, in January, 2012] they tend to have drills on board in the morning and we don't see them until early afternoon.''

Sometimes crew do not get on with each other.

Other personal or employment-related problems crop up.

So crew appreciate having somewhere to go, someone to talk to, and the possibility of getting assistance.

A British sailor came in to the centre one day concerned because his mother had been taken to hospital.

Centre volunteers arranged for the man to be able to speak to his mother by telephone.

They also contacted seafarer centre chaplains in the United Kingdom, who helped organise rest-home care for the woman.

Crew can come to put a lot of trust in centre volunteers, she says.

Last year, a crew member came in asking for help to buy a kilt.

''He was from Croatia and he had worked in a bar in Scotland, and he wanted to open a Scottish bar in Croatia.

''He had never met me before. Within 10 minutes I had $250 in my hand.

''When the ship came in the next week we had the kilt here for him.''

The story does not finish there.

After the man rushed in to the centre toilets, and then emerged proudly wearing the garment, Mrs Farquhar reminded him that true Scotsmen did not wear anything under their kilts.

''With that he put his hand in his bag and pulled out his underpants. I wish I'd never said anything.''

Mr Gan recognises Mrs Farquhar because he has seen her on previous visits.

In fact, between now and April, he will see her much more frequently than he will see his wife and two teenage boys who live in Manila.

Mr Gan has been working on cruise ships throughout the world for the past decade. It can be up to 10 months between trips home.

As he did last year, he will spend the next several months working as a waiter on the vessel as it makes its twice-monthly circuits of New Zealand.

Despite getting off the ship at Port Chalmers dozens of times, he is unlikely to take in the sights of Dunedin.

With the limited time he has ashore before the ship sets sail again, he will always be making a beeline for the Seafarers Centre.

''Their goal is to help us,'' he says.

''It's very important for us to be able to connect with our families.''


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