Seafarers get taste of freedom through the Flying Angel

It might not be dry land, but the Flying Angel is the next best thing for as many as 3,000 sailors holed up on ships in Fujairah anchorage on the east coast of the UAE.

The Flying Angel visiting ships in Fujairah Anchorage. Sean Cronin / The National
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Abdullah Khan hasn't stepped off his chemical tanker in four months.

The ship's 35-year-old Karachi-born first officer clambers down a rope ladder from the 147-metre long Purwati on to the deck of the Flying Angel bobbing below in the waters off Fujairah.

It is the day after his birthday, so he's treating himself to some presents he bought on board the visiting ship.

"Our ship's cook doesn't even know how to bake cakes," he says with a grin.

It might not be dry land, but the Flying Angel is the next best thing for as many as 3,000 sailors holed up on ships in Fujairah anchorage on the east coast of the UAE. The boat is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world, catering to the practical and pastoral needs of seafarers aboard ships that come to Fujairah to refuel and collect cargoes.

As they clamber down on to its deck, Purwati's crew members are smiling broadly at the relief of escaping their vessel for the first time this year - even if it is for just 45 minutes.

The tiny onboard duty-free shop offers items such as fishing tackle, electrical goods and something called "Jovan Sex Appeal" cologne. The shop quickly fills every time a new crew boards the boat.

Most of the men head straight for the computers to send emails, while others leaf through the donated books in the onboard library. Satellite phones are also available.

The Flying Angel and its crew trawl through the waters off Fujairah seven days a week.

Newly arrived ships and those with an obvious need for humanitarian help are given priority, explains the Reverend Nigel Dawkins, the ship's chaplain and an occasional sixth hand in the five-member crew. The boat is operated by the Mission to Seafarers, a 156-year-old Christian agency that works from ports worldwide.

The boat, which was launched in 2007, is visited by as many as 20,000 seafarers every year. It is funded by charitable contributions, mainly from Topaz Energy & Marine, a Dubai oilfield services company.

The east coast of the UAE has naturally deep waters, which makes it a good anchorage for some of the 120 tankers that sail through the Strait of Hormuz every day.

Offshore there are more than 100 anchor positions in what looks like a random arrangement, but which is in fact carefully segregated, depending on a ship's function.

"There's a whole community out there and this is a centre for them," says the Rev Dawkins.

As the Flying Angel leaves the harbour, Captain Wahyadi, 37, announces the boat's departure to what may be more than 100 vessels floating in the anchorage.

He broadcasts on channel 16 of the radio and when a ship responds, the two captains switch to another channel to continue the conversation. It doesn't take long for the radio to crackle into life with responses from vessels too far away to be seen from the bridge.

Two other ships besides the Purwati have requested a visit, and the captain sets his course - picking his way through a flotilla of oil tankers, bulk carriers and bunker barges extending some 14 nautical miles into the Gulf of Oman.

A few miles out to sea there is a grim reminder of the dangers faced by the seamen who work on these ships. The crew of the Indian-registered Prem Divya had been looking forward to celebrating New Year's Eve in Fujairah when they arrived in the port on December 27 for repairs. Two days later at 5pm, a massive explosion ripped through the deck.

"It was like an atomic bomb," says a Filipino third officer working on a nearby refuelling ship, known as a bunker barge. He heard the blast and the ensuing chatter on the ship's radio.

Three bodies were found - those of a seaman and two workers from the company carrying out repairs on the boat. The chief officer of the ship and a third employee of the repair company remain missing.

Three months on, the ship is in the same spot with a small watch boat tied up at its stern. Half of the bridge is a mess of charred steel twisted out of shape by the force of the blast. An investigation is under way into the accident and a repair plan for the ship has been undertaken, says Peter Cremers, the chief executive of Anglo-Eastern Group, the Hong Kong-based owner of the ship.

Many other perils face the seafarers who visit Fujairah anchorage every day, says the Rev Dawkins, who is trained in counselling and available to provide emotional support or just a bit of banter to the visiting sailors. Some have not been paid.

Others are depressed, lonely or have been bullied by fellow crew members. Increasing numbers of sailors also have been the victims of attacks by pirates and may be suffering post-traumatic stress without knowing it.

"It is remarkable how quickly crews often return to work without any form of decompression or counselling after being attacked by pirates," the Rev Dawkins says.

He recalls a recent encounter with an Indian seaman who had been held by pirates for several weeks and had not even told his own family about his ordeal.

"There's also a culture of self-reliance and self-sufficiency at sea - not sharing your problems with everyone," he says.

Back on board the Flying Angel, the visiting crew members are preparing to clamber back on board their ship as 45 minutes of freedom from four months aboard the Purwati draws to a close.

There's just enough time for First Officer Khan to duck into the shop to stock up on chocolate bars for his two children. He will not see them until the end of June, when he is due to return to Karachi for shore leave.

The rest of his crew climbs back up the rope ladder, clutching shopping bags and "library" books that have a return date of never. One of the men tosses the bow rope back with a wave. The engine of the Flying Angel roars back to life. Then it's off to the next crew in need of a friendly face, a telephone call home or maybe just a bottle of sex appeal-boosting cologne.

* Sean Cronin