It is a warm, bright day as Christine Lassiter climbs the metal stairs that serve as a gangplank to the deck of the Chiquita Dream, a 13-year-old container ship registered in Monrovia. The ship’s task is to carry fruit—mainly bananas—from South America to the Port of Wilmington. Once unloaded, the cargo will be trucked to destinations throughout the Eastern U.S.
“These ships usually have a tight time turnaround,” Lassiter, the executive director of Seamen’s Center of Wilmington (SCW), says over her shoulder. “This one arrived early yesterday, and it leaves at 1 a.m. tomorrow.”
Many who work on the Chiquita Dream spend most of the year on the ship or temporarily in ports away from home, including during the pandemic. SCW, a small facility tucked inside the port’s gate, is sometimes their lifeline.
The past few years were rough for seafarers of all countries—hundreds who passed, mostly unnoticed, through the Port of Wilmington, as ships were quarantined at sea by the spread of COVID-19 and stranded on the outskirts of overworked ports. Their situation was similar to that of the ancient ships.
Up top, there is not much activity other than the checking of documents for boarding. “This ship comes in about every two weeks,” Lassiter says. “It now has a crew of 21. The captain is Polish, but the crew is mostly Filipino and Ukrainian, as it is for many of these vessels. I have a translation app on my phone.”
After five years as the assistant to Joan Lyons, the previous executive director, Lassiter is now in her third year heading the largely volunteer organization. She has the business manner of someone who is easygoing and approachable but who is also definitely in charge. “After 20 years in contract management for a pharmaceuticals company, there was some concern that I might have been overqualified when I applied for the assistant’s job,” she points out.
Wilmington is moderately busy for a small port, with an average of seven dockings a week. With a typical crew of 24, that means around 170 sailors a week arrive into port. Although a few never leave the ship, some are such frequent visitors that they form almost a familial relationship with some of the Seamen’s Center volunteers, friendly advocates in helping them find their way around the port.
Much of the port’s incoming cargo is fruit, and much of the outgoing is automobiles, brought directly into the port facility from other states by railway. “There is also a berth for unloading juices…and one for gasoline, especially for Wawa, and an area for loading cars,” Lassiter says.
Operated by Gulftainer USA, Wilmington has become the largest port in North America for some of these goods and companies (especially Dole and Chiquita), as it’s conveniently located within a 200-mile radius of much of the East Coast population, from Boston to Cleveland to the Carolinas.
Ships arrive via the capes—where Delaware Bay opens from the Atlantic Ocean between Cape Henlopen and Cape May—or via the 14-mile-long Chesapeake and Delaware Canal from Chesapeake Bay. “We get an email list of ship arrivals from the Marine Exchange in Philadelphia that projects out for a month,” Lassiter explains, “then, every morning, I talk with the dispatcher at Wilmington Tug.”
Owned by the Rowland family, Wilmington Tug has been in operation since 1965, its stubby boats guiding the enormous vessels through the bay’s channels and into their berths in Wilmington and Philadelphia. There are two other ports in Delaware: one for the PBF Energy refinery in Delaware City and one in Claymont.
SCW itself is a modest one-story structure amid all the massive storage warehouses, the container ships that loom several stories high, and the cranes that load and unload the cargo. But its importance, like the tugboats, outweighs its diminutive appearance.
From the outside, the center looks much like a nondescript, double-wide modular home that would fit in unnoticed in any working-class neighborhood. However, the outside edges of the property form a miniature flower garden, giving an attractive and welcoming presence for visitors.
“Our horticulturalist, Joe Selvaggi, is a crane operator who loves horticulture,” Lassiter says. “He plants everything for a reason.” The interior is spare but functional, with a circular pattern of small, dedicated rooms. There is a store of essentials such as toiletries, much like those attached to a motel’s business office. “Not surprisingly, SIM cards are a big item for them,” Lassiter says.
There are usually coffee and cookies; free Wi-Fi and a place to go online; areas for quiet and for making phone calls; a sitting room; and a rec room with a TV, pool table, and puzzle and games. There’s also a free clothing closet. “Many of these guys have never seen cold weather before,” Lassiter explains. During the pandemic, the center received donations of DVDs and games as a thank you for keeping the world supplied and operating.
“Most crews were sequestered to their vessels and couldn’t get off,” Lassiter explains. “They were stranded.” The center acted in many ways as their agents, doing personal shopping and serving as a temporary depository for things ordered on Amazon. “A lot of them are real sugar addicts,” Lassiter says, noting that one man ordered more than $100 worth of chocolate.
SCW has some 45 volunteers, many who are older and have professional backgrounds. Once on board, they tend to stay active for many years, Lassiter says. Weekday hours are 9 to 9 and weekends are 9 to 4.
The center first opened on January 1, 1990. A nonprofit corporation, its funded by the port and the port community, Lassiter says. A fall fundraiser and two annual giving appeals help keep it afloat. There are about 800 seamen’s centers worldwide, and while Wilmington is not officially associated with any, “We do informally work with other centers,” Lassiter says.
Because the facility is a point of entry into the U.S., security is necessarily tight. The gates and all comings and goings are controlled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and ICE officers are visibly present. “Customs checks their shore passes and vets them when they come and go,” Lassiter explains, “and we have a shuttle bus service to and from Prices Corner Shopping Center on the half hour.”
Each holiday season, Lassiter and her volunteers prepare for their biggest event of the year: Christmas at Sea. Throughout December, the program aims to provide every seafarer who visits Delaware with a “ditty box”—shoeboxes wrapped and filled with essentials such as toothpaste, razors and soap, as well as useful items like playing cards, candy, and perhaps a hat and scarf.
During the pandemic, the center provided Christmas presents to more than 1,200 mariners each year, each ditty box (named after the bags sailors use to store odds and ends) delivered by SCW volunteers directly to the ships. Public donations of gift materials are accepted by the center from September through November.
“Too often, these men operate like an invisible society,” Lassiter says. “But that doesn’t make them any less essential to all of us.”
During the pandemic, the center provided Christmas presents to more than 1,200 mariners each year.