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Long Beach Seafarers Center is barely treading water

The nonprofit facility where sailors seek respite after long voyages is struggling to stay open as donations from shipping firms dry up.

September 16, 2009|Ronald D. White

After a lonely three-week voyage across the Pacific, the multinational crew of the British-flagged container ship Hyundai Tokyo arrives at the largest U.S. port complex and proceeds to do irreparable damage to the stereotype of the hard-living international merchant seaman.

The 28 sailors are as well-mannered as young men meeting their girlfriends' parents. The favored drink is Gatorade. The big snack: Blue Bunny Caramel Chocolate Nut ice cream cones. The most popular purchase is from Victoria's Secret -- not the catalog for those long nights at sea, but Amber Romance body spray or Love Spell, which they mail to wives back home.

All of this is best known at the International Seafarers Center of Long Beach and Los Angeles, one of hundreds of places in a loose worldwide network that offer respite, fellowship and just about anything a young sailor or an old salt might need at a foreign port of call. Wedged near a noisy 710 Freeway overpass, the clubhouse might be mistaken for the nation's most modest Elks Lodge.

Now, the Seafarers Center is threatened by changes in the maritime industry as well as by the global downturn in trade, which is hitting the local ports hard.

On Tuesday, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach posted their lowest August import numbers in at least six years, down 19% in L.A. and 12% in Long Beach compared with the previous August.

Exports, however, are showing signs of firming, but the improvement may not come in time to save the Seafarers Center, which may be forced to close by January.

The nonprofit operates on an annual budget of $300,000 that comes mostly from maritime industry donations. But those companies are struggling to survive; many try to cut costs by leasing their water-borne workers from agencies, leaving little kinship with merchant seamen.

If the center closed, "it would be a very bad feeling for us," said Andrey Mitrofanov, a Russian seaman from Rostov-on-Don. "We will not cry about it, but we will be very close to that condition. They give us very good help in communicating with our families."

Mitrofanov had spent the evening on his computer, using the broadband connection to enjoy every jittery, grainy moment of the video connection with his wife, Marina, and 4-month-old daughter, Arina, halfway around the world.

Every day from 1500 hours (3 p.m. for land lubbers) to 2200 hours (10 p.m.), the Seafarers Center opens to crew members from dozens of distant lands. Upon arrival, more than half of the seamen unpack computers and soon are e-mailing, streaming and social networking with friends and family.

The rest rush to the center's store to buy telephone cards. A $5 card gets 50 minutes of talk time to the Philippines, 230 minutes to Russia and 1,039 minutes to China. Then they take turns in the eight phone booths, chatting for hours.

The center's store keeps a curious inventory that attests to eclectic tastes. Spam and Vienna sausages are huge sellers. Doritos are walloped by pork rinds. White tube socks easily outdistance Los Angeles Lakers T-shirts. If the selection isn't broad enough, volunteers ferry sailors to Wal-Mart and anywhere else they need to go.

Those who stay behind can watch TV or play pool or pingpong. One wall is lined with CDs and cassettes, organized under simple headings such as Heaven and Hell.

Another wall is lined with donated National Geographic magazines dating to the 1930s; the seamen grab handfuls to practice their English or gaze at the pictures as they wait for the next voyage. Space is set aside for religious services or contemplation.

The center remains open because some of its vehicles have been sold and its hours reduced. Manager Pat Pettit and Assistant Manager Merry Jo Dickey have given up healthcare benefits.

In a normal year, volunteers raise about $300,000 to fund operations. This year, they are struggling to bring in $200,000.

"The issue confronting us is that we are on the ropes," said Capt. Jim Morgan, a Seafarers Center board member and one of the harbor pilots who steer huge ships into and out of the Port of Los Angeles.

Donations have dried up because international trade plunged when recession-squeezed consumers stopped spending. Maritime conglomerates have idled ships, combined routes and joined with rivals to cut costs.

"Many of these companies are going to go bust, amalgamate or shrink," said Neil Dekker, editor of London-based Drewry Shipping Consultants' Container Forecaster.

Fundamental changes in how ships are staffed are contributing to the center's financial squeeze, said Manny Aschemeyer, president of the Seafarers Center and a retired master mariner.

"In the old days, you were an employee of a steamship line. You were part of a family," Aschemeyer said.

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