Hooray for the Port Hedland Seafarers Centre

By Michael Metcalf

Port Hedland is not everybody’s cup of tea. Recently, I visited Port Hedland for five hours. Many people will say that is long enough. But in the late sixties as a young Customs Officer I spent three years off and on there and they were the most enjoyable days of my single life.


So, I was keen to see Port Hedland again. Goodness, it has grown, which is to be expected. We counted twenty five ships waiting at anchor from our plane on approach to the airport. Probably more beyond the horizon. Nineteen berths make up the harbour. The numbers are almost overwhelming.

Image of vessels waiting at Port Hedland 10 August 2023. Credit Marine Traffic

The best thing to do in Port Hedland is to take the harbour tour. Run by the Missions to Seafarers, which is a mission of the Anglican church. The Missions to Seafarers has been going for over fifty years and has about 300 missions worldwide and 28 in Australia, of which Hedland is probably the busiest. What a wonderful ‘charitable’ organisation this is. Caters for a part of society that most people know very little about and probably care less about.

Consider the life of a modern seafarer running between Hedland and China mostly. Women as well as men. I was told one ship which came to Hedland had a woman Captain. It’s not easy for crew to go ashore. Ports located miles from anywhere and very industrial. And probably very limited access to a decent shopping centre! And of course during Covid they were simply not allowed off their ships no matter where they were. In Hedland the Mission has come to their rescue. So the Harbour tour also includes day-to-day servicing of the crews.

We started with a brilliant briefing from the Chaplain, Garry Hammersley. Garry along with his wife spearheads the organisation. He was in the Navy for seventeen years so he ‘speaks the language.’ Ships not boats. He was a wealth of information and could answer all our questions including my intelligent ones. ‘Garry, are the ships wet or dry these days? He knew what I meant. They are mostly dry, that is, alcohol free! This was followed by bus ride down to the town wharf where we embarked on the tour boat. Together with the shopping bags for crew. This is amazing. The Seafarers run a ‘click and deliver’ service. Crew can email into the Missions their food shopping order and the Missions does the shopping for them!

When we were looking around the Centre we noticed shelves and shelves of shopping bags with ships names and dates written on them. And when the tour boat came to some ships, crew came down the accommodation ladder and collected theirs, or threw a line over and they were hoisted up on board. But some of the ships had a flag on view at the top of the ladder and that meant that some of the crew wanted to go ashore to shop. So we came alongside. Down the ladder they came, wearing white gloves of course to counteract the iron ore stains on their hands. Now that flag just has to be a Navy innovation!

The crew going ashore for shopping joined us on the tour boat and then in the bus going back to the Centre. And they come ashore with Yankee Dollars so of course the Centre has a currency exchange. At a far nicer rate than the banks would give them, for sure. If there is a bank in Hedland which provides that service. They then bus them up to the major shopping centre and leave them there for an hour or two and then pick them up and return them to the ship, the same way. And change their unspent Aussie money back to Yankee money.

Not only did we have a wonderful tour of the harbour, but we also took part in the everyday tasks of the Seafarers. The Centre can get very busy at times. Garry finds it difficult to get employees so he relies a lot on volunteers. Most at the Centre can speak two languages. I found the idea of wintering up in Port Hedland volunteering rather attractive but for some reason my wife was not so enthused.

Pulling up alongside an accommodation ladder hanging down from a 175,000 ton ship certainly impressed the tourists, and brought back memories for me, although the ships I boarded were a bit less than 175,000 tons.

If ever you have the fortune to be in Hedland, take the Harbour Tour. It is a genuine unique experience.

* Michael Metcalf is a retired Customs Officer with a deep regard for ports. He is also a frequent contributor to Fremantle Shipping News and you’ll find some of his contributions, including amusing ones recalling his Customs days, right here.


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