Helping Hand
5:00 am
Fri February 7, 2014

Catholic Seafarers' Center Provides A Lifeline To Sailors During Their Hours In Seattle

These days, Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood is dominated by wine bars and night clubs. But on one block of First Avenue, there’s a living reminder of the city’s dependence on the waterfront. Outside a two-story corner building, a few doors down from a Starbucks, is a vertical sign that reads "Catholic Seamen’s Club."  

These days, the place is known as the Catholic Seafarers’ Center and it’s run by the Archdiocese of Seattle. But for decades, the center has provided a lifeline to sailors, whether they’re here for just a few hours or months.

Oscar Diaz is one of the people meeting the needs of those sailors. Originally from Chile, he’s familiar with life at sea; he used to be a sailor himself. But about 20 years ago, he started volunteering for the center and now has a paying gig driving a van to pick up sailors from big container ships at the port and take them where they need to go.

Oscar Diaz shuttles sailors from the port on shopping excursions
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

On a recent day, he was juggling cellphone calls from different ships. A crew of Sri Lankan, Malaysian and Filipino sailors wanted to get picked up from a terminal near the West Seattle bridge. Another pair of Filipinos arrived on a different ship. Luckily, all of them agreed on where they want to go first: Best Buy.

They piled into the van, ready for a few precious hours ashore. They’d been away from their families for months, with only each other for company. The sailors set out for their shopping excursion with lists of things to buy for fellow crew members who don’t have visas to enter the U.S. and have to stay onboard.

Changing Times

In the 20 years Diaz has been working at the center, he’s seen a lot of changes. These days, it’s not as busy.

“There are fewer ships and they don’t stay so long,” Diaz said. “They have faster and bigger cranes to take care of the cargo, and that’s the reason.”

That means the sailors head straight to the stores instead of stopping at the Seafarers’ Center in Belltown.

The Catholic Seafarers' Center in Belltown.
Credit Justin Steyer / KPLU

The place used to be bustling with sailors using computers and watching soccer on TV. Now, it’s showing its age. Yellowed newspaper clippings hang from the wall. A big map of the world still shows the Soviet Union.

“Unfortunately, you know, we’re empty like this a lot of the time,” said Father Tony Haycock, port chaplain at the center. “There used to be, years ago, seafarers here a good bit of the time.”

Haycock is originally from Liverpool, England, but he’s been here so long, he’s lost track of time. The best he can pinpoint it is “over 20 years.”

Nowhere Else To Turn

But even though the center itself is often empty, there’s still plenty for Haycock and the center’s director, Deacon Michael Riggio, to do. They’re busy in a different way. They’re the ones keeping an eye out for people who have nowhere else to turn.

Riggio describes a particularly dramatic example when the Coast Guard two years ago quarantined a ship that was unseaworthy. The six crew members from Central America were stuck onboard because they didn’t have the right documents.

Credit Justin Steyer / KPLU

“They were trapped,” Riggio said. “To get a good feel for what it’s like, it’s about a 20-foot-tall cyclone fence with concertina barbed wire on top and a locked gate in a very confined area at Pier 91, in the shadow of the Space Needle in downtown Seattle right next to the massive cruise ships.”  

After a while, the Coast Guard allowed the Catholic Seafarers' Center to take the men out of quarantine for meals, including Thanksgiving dinner. Eventually the owner scraped together enough money to fix the boat and they set sail for Mexico. Riggio says speaking up for sailors is a big part of what they do.

“Even though there are modern laws to protect them, there’s still a lot of stuff that happens on ships that we like to be present so that we can hear about it and intervene if necessary,” he said.

A Reminder Of Seattle's Maritime Legacy

And Haycock says it’s their job to look out for the people who get forgotten in the hustle and bustle of our tech- and aerospace-dominated economy.

“People see the ships, you look out and see the ships coming by, going back and forth,” Haycock said. “You don’t realize there are people on there.”

They're people like Marlon, who only wished to be identified by his first name, and Randy Yoldi from the Philippines. After a quick shopping trip at Seattle’s Northgate Mall, facilitated by Diaz, they looked over what they managed to buy in just one hour. Most of it was for their friends on board who couldn’t go shopping because they lacked visas.

“Hanes T-shirts, shoes, Victoria’s Secret, soap for their wives, these candies,” Yoldi described as he peered into his shopping bags.

'Oh, Yeah, I Miss Them'

Inside Best Buy, another Filipino sailor named Joselito Nollaga stood eyeing cell phones and tablets. He said he’d like to buy one for his sons back home. He’d gone seven months without seeing them. A salesman told him the one Nollaga would like is out of stock; the store could order it for him, but by then his ship would be long gone.

Joselito Nollaga shows a picture of his family.
Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU

Nollaga says he’s able to call his sons once or twice a week from the ship. They’re 9 and 10 years old. It seems foolish to even ask: Does he miss them?

“Oh yeah, I miss them,” he said, pulling out a weathered photo from his wallet.

He’s been working as a sailor since before they were born. It pays a lot more than rice farming or growing bananas, but he doesn’t want his sons to copy him. He’d like his older son to become a lawyer or doctor, if Nollaga can afford to pay for his schooling.

“My second wants to become a pilot,” Nollaga said with a laugh. “I don’t know if I can afford [it].”

He earns comparatively good money, about $2,000 a month — more than four times what an average Filipino family earns. But the tradeoff is being far from his family. He was at sea when his father died and missed the funeral.

Still, if he’s feeling lonely here, 6,000 miles from home, there’s a group of Catholics looking out for him in a nondescript building in Belltown.