Shopping with the Seafarers

Nov 19, 2014

The vast majority of everything we buy comes to us across the oceans on lumbering container ships – floating villages of sailors with no doctors, no telephones, no police.  

And there’s nowhere to shop. Need batteries? Warmer socks? A new laptop to while away the hours? Seafarers have to wait to hit dry land for that.

That’s why as soon as many of them reach the Port of Oakland, they hitch a ride to the mall from the local seafarers club, sponsored by a maritime church.

Dheeraj Singh is one of them. He’s the first officer on a container ship that makes regular runs from China, to California, to Japan, and back again.

“Frankly speaking we are lucky,” he says. “And we should be thankful to God that we are really looking whole of the globe.”

In his 10 years at sea, he’s sailed all over the world.

“From totally white people you are going to totally black, brown, different variety of people out there, so it's a great experience,” says Singh.

The shopping list

The route he travels right now means that every 35 days, his ship docks at the Port of Oakland. And that means he gets to have another great experience: shopping at the Best Buy in Emeryville.

“In fact Best Buy in seamen's eyes...it’s electronics heaven,” he says, laughing.

Singh is Indian, from the state of Punjab. For his afternoon of shore leave, he’s wearing a bright pink turban and a t-shirt that says ‘USA’ outlined in stars and stripes. And he has a shopping list -- cologne for his father, a laptop for his nephew, and Gerber baby food for his one-year-old daughter.

The van arrives at Best Buy. Dan Regan is the driver today. He’s a volunteer with the International Maritime Center, an organization dedicated to welcoming seafarers, so they feel less like strangers. “That's kind of what our motto is, and we just do it, whoever comes up,” Regan says.

Today, that means shuttling men from the Philippines, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Romania, and India on shopping trips to big box -- and little pink bag -- stores.

It’s right around lunchtime. Just an hour or so ago, Singh walked off a ship that very likely carried many of the consumer goods he wants to buy from factories in China to the stores in Oakland where he’s going to shop. In a few hours, he’ll set sail for Tokyo. But first, Best Buy.

It’d be hard for Singh and the others to do this on their own. You can’t really walk anywhere from the Port of Oakland, there’s limited public transportation, and taxis are expensive. So this once a month ride to the mall is a kind of lifeline.

Singh buys a computer, and tells the clerk he’ll need it loaded up with software and ready to go by 4 o’clock -- that’s when he needs to be back aboard his ship. Purchase made, he tucks the receipt into his wallet alongside a motley assortment of US dollars, Japanese yen, and Indian rupees.

While we wait to hear if his computer will be ready in time, he tells me about life at sea.

“Shipping is one of the toughest jobs in the world,” he says, standing under a flickering display of HD TVs. “Away from the family, so many rules and regulations, so much stress…and then the paperwork is there.”

I tell him how interesting it is to me that when he finally gets free time, he immediately heads to a place like Best Buy. To me, it seems like such a limited piece of our country.  

“The question you ask is a real question,” he says. “You have to be inside the country, you have to go far, to get to know the people, to get to the know the system.  If we see all this – Best Buy – maybe we’ll say “all good.” Maybe we haven’t gone inside in the depth of the US. We haven’t seen how the people are struggling here to survive. It’s a capitalist country, and if you work, you survive. Survival for the fittest. This country is survival for the fittest. In India, one guy is earning, five guys sitting at home, no problem at all. But here you cannot do that.”

What you can do is get products that aren’t as affordable or as available in other parts of the world -- electronics, or special baby food, or … lingerie.   

Home away from home

“We know when a seafarer's due to go home at the end of the contract when he asks to be taken to Victoria Secret,” says Adrienne Yee. She’s the director of the International Maritime Center at the Port of Oakland -- the folks who arranged Singh’s shopping trip.

“They love buying the lotions and perfumes for their wife, or their girlfriend at home. So usually they're expected to bring home that pink bag,” she says.

I’ve left Singh to finish his shopping, and am back at the International Maritime Center. When they aren’t at the mall, this is where the seafarers hang out -- about ten of them today, from various ships.

It’s a small pre-fab building – like a portable classroom you’d see at a school. There’s a pool table, a small chapel, a room with computers, and a little commissary selling things like razors, chocolate bars, and coffee mugs with drawings of the Golden Gate Bridge on the side. Yee works the register, counting out change.

The Center isn’t just about commerce. It’s run by a church -- the Seamen’s Church Institute, or SCI.

“We have chaplains and volunteers of different faiths that go out to the ships during certain times during the day to reach out to the seafarers or the seafarers are we have the center here for them to come too if they wish to get away from the ship,” she explains. “So basically we offer hospitality, pastoral care, counseling, a friendly conversation, someone to speak to.”

Centers like this exist in many ports, all around the world. They’re places where seafarers can get low-cost phone cards, use computers to Skype with family back home, touch green grass, and break up the monotony of the hard work they do aboard ship.

Alfie Loya is from a small town in the Philippines. He’s been away from his wife and three-year-old daughter for close to nine months. Right now, he’s stocking up for the next leg of his voyage -- buying snacks and souvenirs. And Cheetos -- that’s something he can’t get aboard his ship.

The majority of seafarers who pass through the center are like Loya – Filipino, away from home extended periods of time. Like so many of his shipmates, he spends his days scraping rust off his ship’s deck, fixing things that are broken, offloading containers, securing new ones -- long hours at sea with little contact with the families they’re working to support.

Reasons for leaving

Bob McCune’s another volunteer at the center. He checks in with the sailors to make sure they’re being treated okay.  He flips through a sheaf of paper on his desk.

“This is a contract for guy that's onboard a ship and he is getting paid $428 per month,” he tells me.

The seafarer in question is Filipino, like Loya.

“He gets overtime allowance also...the details of it I'm not sure, but he probably gets around $1000 maybe $1200 a month when all is taken into account,” McCune says. That’s because the seafarer in question, like most, will definite work overtime.

Twelve hundred dollars might not seem like a lot, until you realize that the average salary in the Philippines is less than $300 a month -- one of the lowest in the world.

The ability to earn more is the major motivator for a life at sea-- even if it means leaving loved ones behind. They are looking out for the their families -- and the maritime center is looking out for them.

The phone rings. It’s Dheeraj Singh – folks at the center call him ‘the Captain.’ And the Captain has gotten lost -- he needs a ride back to the Maritime Center.

McCune tells him he’ll find out what’s going on.

“Is that the Captain?” asks Yee from across the room. “He’s at the Burger King? Dan is on his way to get him.”

McCune relays the news that someone’s on the way, and hangs up the phone  

Yes, even when your job is circumnavigating the globe, you can still get stranded in the parking lot of a Burger King in Emeryville, California.

To find out more about container ships, check out Rose George's book, "Ninety Percent of Everything."