Pastor to the Port

In the changing world of the Houston Ship Channel, one thing remains constant: Father Rivers Patout.

Once the situation seemed resolved, Patout and his colleagues stepped back. "They brought in a new crew and they sailed," says the priest. "I don't know if any of the toilets were fixed or if the wash basins ever worked. My guess is they didn't."

It's not just the easy availability of replacements that causes some ship owners to have little concern for their crews, says Patout. It's also the increased emphasis on profits and the lack of a true national identity for ships. "You don't have some one person to go to and say 'Look, you got lousy ships,'" he notes. "Ownership is often hidden by many titular companies. It's like 'who really owns this ship?'"

That, Patout admits, has made his job more complicated. But then, not all the alterations in maritime have led to oppressive conditions. One of the captains Patout visits is Odd Olsen, who, during his 35 or so years at sea, has seen a lot change. Olsen appears to have weathered it all fine, ending up nicely as the captain of Norwegian-flagged container ship. Patout meets Olsen, a gray-haired ruddy-faced Norwegian captaining the Star Evviva, as the priest makes one of his daily ship visits. The ship is docked ever so briefly at Barbours Cut, a sliver of water toward the east end of the Ship Channel. Aside from the Star Evviva's flag, only Olsen and one other seaman are Norwegian. The rest are Filipinos, the most dominant nationality among the sailors who drop anchor in Houston.

Despite Patout's visit to Olsen's ship, the Evviva's crew won't have any time to visit his center. The ship docked at 7:30 a.m. and will be leaving that night on an itinerary that includes Beaumont, Mobile, Panama City, Charleston and "then we go to Rotterdam," Olsen says. With containers, stops can be hours instead of days, and the crew can be less than half the size than what was needed 10 or 15 years ago.

This one day stopover is relatively new; crews used to stay in port for three to five days, says Olsen. He's not complaining, though, since he used to be gone from home for months at a time. Now his work shift is not unlike an offshore oil worker, seven weeks on, seven weeks off.

His Filipino crewmen are a different matter. Most Filipinos sign on for stints of six months or more and are paid significantly less than Western Europeans or Americans. Some can make up to $300 a month if they're on a ship that abides by the national union agreement. Those that aren't may get as little as $100 a month. Whatever their pay, 80 percent of their salary is sent home to the Philippines.

A colleague of Patout's, the Reverend Randy Albano, is a Filipino who works at the Seafarers' Center. A minister of the independent Catholic Church of the Philippines, he estimates there are 250,000 Filipinos now at sea.

The increase of seafarers from the lower end of the wage scale, Patout believes, has heightened the need for the kind of support provided by the Seafarers' Center. But though the need may be greater, getting the sailors to use the center has become harder. Visits to the center are now around 50,000 a year, a decline from a few years back, when larger crews and longer stays led to about 100,000 visits annually. The Seafarers' Center provides a variety of recreational pursuits and religious services every night, though Patout's aware that its big screen television and draft beer may be a more important draw, especially since the bars that used to crowd the other side of the port's chain link fence have all but disappeared, casualties of the changing dynamics of international shipping.

In older days, any maritime area would have had a proliferation of bars. But when the maritime economy bottomed out and sailors started earning cheaper wages, the bars began to close. "It wouldn't mean near as much for Europeans to spend $20 in a night of drinking, as it would for a seaman who might be getting paid $100 a month," says Patout. "They still drink, and prostitution is alive and well, but there's not as much."

Appetites remain, but in an era in which capitalism is being hailed as the victor in the fight for world economic dominance, it shouldn't be surprising that the type of consumption many seafarers want has more to do with K-mart than wine, women and song.

German officers visit Kroger to buy steaks while others hit the Boot Barn searching for jeans. Filipinos want Levi 501s. "They love their 501s," says Albano. "I try to tell them that Wrangler has thicker denim, but it's no use."

The closest shopping mall of any size to the port is the Pasadena Town Square. A cab ride, or a ride from one of the Seafarers' Center vans, are the only transportation options other than a good, long walk for foreign seamen who want to sample an air-conditioned American mall. But "they're used to walking," says Patout. "It's okay for them to walk five miles somewhere. The average American wouldn't consider it because he doesn't have a concept of what walking five miles would be."

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