Mon., December 27, 2010 3:20pm (EST)

In Port Briefly, Ship Crews Go To Wal-Mart
By Orlando Montoya
Updated: 4 years ago

SAVANNAH, Ga.  —  
The Port of Savannah is the nation's fourth-busiest container port, with thousands of maritime crew members coming there each year.  (photo Georgia Ports Authority)
The Port of Savannah is the nation's fourth-busiest container port, with thousands of maritime crew members coming there each year. (photo Georgia Ports Authority)
Seafarers -- or seamen as they prefer to be called -- don't actually get to see much of the places they port.

For those who visit the Port of Savannah, it's often only a matter of hours after their ship arrives that they have to leave again.

But there is one group there to help them out.

Recently I talked to some of the port's temporary visitors -- and a man who helps them make the most of their time.

Bill Maxey strides up the gangway of the Hanjin Colombo as the container ship rests in its berth at the Port of Savannah.

A pastor for the International Seamen's House, he's warmly escorted to the bridge, where he greets second-officer Marlon Ruelan with a smile.

"Hey! How are you doing?" Maxey booms.

Maxey brings gifts for the ship's mostly Filipino crew, but the pens and planners are just tokens of what the Seamen's House will do for the crew over the course of the few short hours that the ship's in port.

Ruelan knows the organization and its sister groups around the world.

"They are very, very helpful to us because without them even we cannot go ashore, we cannot go shopping, we cannot call to our family," Ruelan says. "And that's very important to us.

Savannah's International Seamen's House was founded in 1848.

Its focus is hospitality.

In the past, that meant a decent place for sailors to stay the night.

Today, seamen hardly stay in port long enough for a night's stay, so Maxey's main job is shuttling them around in a large van.

First stop is the group's small, sparcely-decorated trailer on port grounds where Filipino seaman Levon Chua is checking Facebook.

"This is my wife," Chua beems as he shows me pictures of his wedding. "I'll show you my wife."

It's a busy day with about 20 seamen at the House.

Some play pool. Others eat. Calling cards get rapt attention.

The idea is to catch up on news from home and stock up for life at sea.

A typical request is a trip to Wal-Mart.

Maxey often makes several trips a day to Wal-Mart. Korean seaman Junyon Kim arrives and quickly gets lost.

"So, I'm looking for watch section but I don't know where," Kim says as he spends ten precious minutes hunting down a watch as a gift for a fellow crewman.

His friend, Junwon Seo, looks at his own watch impatiently as Kim later picks among belts in the men's isle.

"Very long time he choose," Kim says in broken English. "We have just one hour."

It would be a typical scene if the hands reaching for these goods didn't bear the signs of a hard worker.

Kim's nails are dirty from the oil and scum of the engine room, and while eating a Big Mac at the store's McDonald's, he confesses, the heat in the engine room is killing him and he misses home.

"I have a dream," Kim says. "I want to be a surveyor."

Kim says, he'll only work on ships a few more years to earn money for school.

Seamen's wages, months at sea and work life are notoriously hard and it can sometimes seem the case, as well, for Maxey, whose cell phone rings constantly with requests from foreign visitors.

Since 9/11, he's also had to deal with added security measures at the port, which make his work harder.

But, the pastor says, he's paid an even greater reward. For him, it's a ministry.

"The ones that show hospitality to strangers, the Lord knows that," Maxey says. "When you are being hospitable to someone or sharing with them, the Lord knows that. Everything's going to be repaid 100%."

Maxey works with another pastor and a few volunteers.

The small operation serves thousands of seamen each year.