In the course of a year, as many as 7,000 cargo and cruise ships might go through New Orleans, and some 300,000 seamen from 100 different countries might have go ashore.

Do not be surprised at those numbers. Sharon Reames of the Cruise and Tourism Department of the Port of New Orleans notes that “the larger cruise ships have up to 1,200 crew members,” and those ships regularly stop here. But, “the crew only gets a certain amount of time off: they might get in about 6 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m.”

Time is money, and a ship in port isn’t transporting people or goods. Increasing automation, the need for round-the-clock attention to details and, for American seamen, intense government regulation are now the rule. According to Jordan P. Biscardo, Maryland-based National Communications Director, Seafarers International Union members must register with the local union office in Harvey within 24 hours after leaving a ship. Afterwards, they go home. It is different for foreign workers, even those with visas.

Just getting time off the ship might be a problem.

The importance of shore leave was the topic this March at a U.S. Department of Transportation meeting in Washington, D.C. Rules are proposed asking that terminal and port operators, as well as ship owners, offer reasonable access to shore leave in U.S. ports to boost morale, reduce fatigue and increase retention rates of workers.

Groups offering help for foreign crewmembers on shore leave are most often non-profit religious organizations. “They don’t push religion,” Reames explains. “They help (the seamen) and they provide a serene atmosphere.”

 “They have been living in a metal box in the middle of an ocean – it’s an isolating type of lifestyle,” explains Baptist Minister Norman Mangum of Global Maritime Ministries. A chance to visit Wal-Mart, go to a mall, make phone calls, watch television and maybe have a little peace and quiet: it’s not much but it means a lot. His group picks up crews from the cruise terminal with a bus, brings them to Wal-Mart and can also bring them to the Global Ministries center at 3635 Tchoupitoulas St. ( There are snacks, television and a place to go online or make phone calls, plus books and games.
Seamen can have their mail sent there, and if they need a willing ear when they want to talk, they find that, too. The organization has been active since 1962; it also covers ships docking in St. Bernard Parish and has a site upriver in Reserve.

The Catholic Church has an Apostleship of the Sea, and the Stella Maris Center (honoring Mary, Star of the Sea) in Destrehan picks up seamen from the refineries and grain elevators along the river and near the Huey P. Long Bridge, offering a chance to shop, relax, play basketball and get in touch with family. They will also bring communion on board ships and will bless a ship on which a death has occurred – something seamen from the Philippines appreciate, says Deacon Wayne Lobell.

Staff from all religious port services keep in touch; on a recent weekend Stella Maris hosted Global Ministries and the Norwegian Seamen’s Church for a crawfish boil.

The Norwegian Seaman’s Church at 1772 Prytania St., under the Reverend Frank Torbjorn Skofteland, offers regular church services (including one jazz service a month) and has a hostel available for visitors. Currently the church is exploring changing to a local non-profit organization, still serving the Scandinavian maritime community as they have since 1906, and keeping up with their tradition of hosting jazz concerts and an annual event in early winter with Norwegian food and crafts.

As Rev. Skofteland explains, the Norwegians on board ships these days are most often the captain, engineer or first officer. He sometimes goes on board, bringing Norwegian candies and magazines, and just listens. Sometimes, a friend who speaks your own language may be just what’s needed.

The religious groups serving seaman also gather together each year at the St. Louis Cathedral for the annual Maritime Mass, held in the fall (on a Sunday without a Saints home game). Afterwards they walk to the river, and each group prays and then tosses a wreath into the water in memory of those lost at sea.

In the end, the groups serving seamen want to assure that they have a happy voyage.