By Jason Zuidema, Executive Director, NAMMA

From Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, delegates gathered in Montreal for the North American Maritime Ministry Association’s (NAMMA) annual conference. The conference gathered more than 120 participants—a record number—from a wide spectrum of non-profit organizations and industry leaders to discuss the challenges of seafaring life and new initiatives to confront those challenges. Outside of this meeting, NAMMA gathers more than 50 port-based non-profit organizations and hundreds of individuals across North America–including the seafarers’ centres in most of Canada’s major ports.

Because all of these centres are independent non-profits, the Association has existed for many years to help tie together the network with annual and regional conferences and professional development tools. It has a very active online presence, with lots of great resources to help seafarers’ welfare achieve excellence.

The meeting in Montreal was especially remarkable because of the presence of a number of international delegates and strategic funding partners. Partners from the International Christian Maritime Association – including the Apostleship of the Sea, Mission to Seafarers, Sailor’s Society and German Seamen’s Missions – were all present. More, partners from the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), the ITF Seafarers’ Trust, the UK Merchant Navy Welfare Board, Seafarers’ UK and the TK Foundation all participated with enthusiasm. Many of these partner associations represent the shipping industry and labour at their highest levels. NAMMA was thankful for their participation.

Two topics of conversation dominated the conversations: first, how do port-based seafarers’ welfare centres use new web-based technology to improve their work? The conference saw the launch of a number of new e-initiatives, that is, new projects that will help seafarers connect with the services they want ashore, but also connect with their families back home. Indeed, the seafarers’ centers in our ports continue to be the #1 provider of telephone and Internet for most crews that arrive. As ports and shipping companies think further about their responsibility to provide Internet access while on board, seafarers’ welfare groups can provide specific information about those needs and model a wonderful track-record of success.

The second topic of conversation – and the real theme of the conference – was service to seafarers and their families. Many of those attending the conference have experience at sea or with a member of family at sea. A number of speakers helped understand what sacrifices seafarers make for families and what those of us who benefit from their sacrifices might do in return. No doubt, volunteering at a seafarers’ center is a great first step. What better way to say ‘thank you’ to seafarers who bring us 90 per cent of our goods than being a volunteer at a seafarers’ centre? Yet, as we learned at the conference, not all seafarers can go ashore and the cost of communication by telephone or Internet is still very high for them. The conference heard from a SIM card company executive, a leading ship chandler and several other key Internet-based communication leaders on the technical challenges and future possibilities in the industry. The many chaplains and ship visitors gathered were happy to hear that new developments in this field will continue help seafarers connect more closely with their families.

Above all, it was great that the conference was again in Canada. The majority of NAMMA’s members are in the United States, but the many partnerships between Canadian ports, industry and seafarers’ welfare organizations show leadership in the field for our Southern neighbours. The conference hotel was within walking distance of Mariner’s House of Montreal – all participants went to visit there at one point or another during the week. All remarked on the beauty and functionality of the space, the dynamism of the staff, and how well the organization was run. Indeed, the supporters of the Montreal Seafarers’ Centre should be proud of this peer review – the organization’s work and support base is a beautiful accomplishment!

Finally, we were very happy for the partnership of Canadian Sailings in our event – all the delegates received complimentary copies of a recent issue of their choice. It was great gift to understand the maritime industry in our country!