Crew Welfare: Penny’s medal is the cat’s whiskers

To the untrained eye, it would seem like any other night in the Falmouth seafarers centre. Seafarers with head bents enjoying some quiet time in the Mission Chapel, others playing table football and the Mission cat shifting from lap to lap purring happily as she went.

But this was no ordinary evening – for it was one of the biggest emergencies ever faced by The Mission to Seafarers centre at the A&P Falmouth dockyard site in Cornwall – the largest ship-repair complex in the UK.

Just hours earlier on 18th July 2012, 18 crew members and two passengers on the containership MSC Flaminia had trudged into the Centre having been rescued and brought to Falmouth following a huge fire four days earlier which started in the hold and caused an explosion as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Charleston, US to Antwerp in Belgium. Three people perished and those that survived were left traumatised by the incident.

Penny Phillips, Chairman and Emergency Co-ordinator, explained the huge task that lay before the Falmouth branch of the Misison to Seafarers as it prepared to help the survivors. Two planning meetings were held during the morning and late afternoon of the 18th with ship agents, the P&I Club, and police and ship owner representatives had ironed out any problems which might arise. At 7pm, the Mission to Seafarers’ Emergency Team was setting its plans in motion.

The two-storey main office of A&P Falmouth, the dockyard authority which runs the Falmouth shiprepair yard, had been turned into an emergency control and reception area. The table in the A&P training room was laid out with a buffet and drinks, and the survivors were welcomed ashore by a representative of the ship owner and the team of six volunteers including Penny, chaplains and other volunteers.

“The evening was non-stop with all the volunteers welcoming crew, serving them food and drinks, showing crew to changing rooms, escorting them to the doctor and ensuring the smooth flow through all the various processes,” said Penny. “The crew were always with someone. I saw Rev Jon Robertshaw holding the hand of one Filipino seafarer in the corner of the Centre whilst they jointly said a prayer.”

Although a high-profile case, it is just one of the many incidents Penny has helped with since setting up the seafarer centre in a portable building back in 2004. It is also one of the reasons behind her nomination for the British Empire Medal which she was awarded in the 2019 New Year Honours list in December.

Penny became involved with The Mission to Seafarers seafarer charity through her ‘day job’ at A&P Falmouth where she has worked for an incredible 42 years.

She initially wanted to be a hotel receptionist, as her parents worked in the hotel trade but when she finished college all the jobs had gone and a three-month work experience post came up at the dockyard. She never left, first working as a receptionist come understudy for the commissionaire – a uniformed man who stood at the main gate and welcomed all the visitors. From there she was seconded to a year’s post with a drilling company before returning to the original offices to work as PA to the Managing Director.

Penny became interested in the work of the Mission through visits from the chaplain Rev David Roberts MBE, who was a chaplain for the charity for 50 years. In 2004, an opportunity arose where a portable building became available that A&P offered to the Mission as a seafarers’ drop-in centre, where they could just take a seat and read a newspaper.

“It soon became very popular with the seafarers,” said Penny. “The little cabin that we started with in 2004 has now become a bespoke cabin ‘The Flying Angel Cabin’ – especially made to fill the same footprint and we’ve got a chapel, a games room, a summer house, and a beautiful wraparound garden, where the seafarers spend a lot of time in the summer.”

The centre, which saw 4,000 seafarers pass through its doors in 2017, is manned by a team of volunteers 24/7, and is there to support seafarers from around the world, who come in on ships that come in for repair, cruise ships that visit in the summer months, any casualty vessels that come in and also MoD vessels.

“We recently added Syria to our map, when some crew came in on a casualty vessel,” said Penny.

When the centre first started, the Mission bought an old telephone box so seafarers could call loved ones and this then turned into four telephone boxes. Today, with seafarers using the internet to reach home, none of them are used and have two other uses – one is a library while another holds gardening tools.

Though technology has changed, the problems really haven’t said Penny. “When you speak to everyone from around the world you realise they have exactly the same problems, whether it’s family problems or money problems and people do like to share that. They are very happy to tell you their problems.”

She added: “The casualty that stands out the most for me is the MSC Flaminia, which is what our summer house was named after.

“It was also when the Mission cat came in very useful because Bagpuss (Mrs Josephine Bagpuss to give her full name), who we have had for as long as we have had the cabin, stayed up all night and was sitting on the survivors’ laps, which was lovely. She didn’t go off to bed. Everyone who comes in and sees the cat immediately feels at home and less stressed.”

Bagpuss, now aged 14, has even received an award from the Mission’s central office for her care of seafarers and is sponsored by a local taxi company, who pay for her food and vet bills.

The volunteers too are invaluable giving up their time to help, as are the two chaplains, the committee and Graham Hall, Merchany Navy Medal holder, who also runs the centre and designed and maintains the garden.

One of the Mission’s latest acts of support was to the crew of Russian cargo vessel Kuzma Minin which is anchored off Falmouth after running aground on Gyllyngvase beach on 18th December.  Since then, the Mission has been looking after the 18 crew as the vessel is detained unarrested and cannot move until repairs have been carried out.

Because they are Russian, they are now allowed ashore and so the centre sent out Christmas presents and has since sent out SIM cards and fishing gear, so they can do some recreational fishing. It also sent out some food because they ran out if fresh vegetables just before the ship owner took responsibility.

“A&P are brilliant. They don’t charge us any rent, electricity or water, so all the fundraising we do literally just goes to the upkeep of the centre and to buy things for seafarers like we’ve had to with the Kuzma Minin,” said Penny, who as well as being Chairman of The Mission to Seafarers Falmouth is also a qualified ship welfare visitor.

“It is such an enjoyable job and a reward for it really wasn’t necessary. It shines a light on the Mission, which is the most important thing for me.”

Gerald Pitts, Managing Director at A&P Defence, based at A&P Falmouth, said: “We are tremendously proud of Penny’s achievement and thrilled that her dedication to seafarers and the charity has received such high-profile recognition. It is incredibly well-deserved.”

Penny discovered she would be receiving the British Empire Medal in October but was only allowed to tell her family on 28th December, the day before the New Year Honours list was announced.  Who nominated her remains a mystery.

She will receive the BEM in front of friends and family in a ceremony at Cornwall’s County Hall in Truro on 26th April and will attend a garden party at Buckingham Palace with her partner on 21st May.