They are an invisible workforce, the 40,000 or so container and cruise foreign crews that annually spend a few days in Seattle. For many, their favorite visits are to the Best Buys and Wal-Marts.
They are Seattle visitors who usually only have a couple of hours to see the sights. Their trip has to be carefully planned.
No Pike Place Market, no Space Needle, no Seattle Underground tour for them.
Here are their top choices: Southcenter. Northgate. Best Buy. Target. Costco. Victoria’s Secret.
They also are happy spending quality time at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Renton, which covers three football fields and offers a package of 220 Halloween pieces of Whoppers, Kit Kats, Milk Duds and Hershey’s for $19.84.
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They are the crews of the 500 container, 180 cruise and 60 other cargo ships that call on Seattle terminals every year.
“I bought rubber shoes,” says Florencio Fior, 61, chief engineer on the cargo ship Tokonarui Bay. That’s his term for sneakers. “They are from that Stephen … Stephen … hmm … Cur …”
You mean, the Stephen Curry basketball sneakers that retail here for $110 plus tax?
“Yes, yes,” says Fior. “They’d be very expensive in the Philippines, about maybe $300.”
For some Americans, the big-box stores are a source of derision. But for the ship crews, they offer better prices, better quality, better selection than back home. What’s not to love?
The crews are mostly male, with Filipinos making up a good portion. These visitors number 40,000 a year, and they are pretty much invisible to us locals.
Lots more container ships call here, but they have crews of only 20 or so, while cruise ships have contracted crews of 2,000 that include many hospitality workers. The cruise season here ended in September.
Getting from their ships to a shopping center is costly — $50 for a one-way cab ride. That stings, when your salary might be $1,200 to $1,600 a month.
So they value the minivans that show up at the terminals from The Mission to Seafarers.
It was founded back in 1856 by Anglicans to help British sailors. These days it serves all races and all religions at 260 ports worldwide.
In Seattle, the mission says that in some manner, by taking them shopping, for example, it helps half of those 40,000 crew members. Sometimes it might just be to bring a Wi-Fi hot spot to the ship, $20 a day, split among the crew members. The cost is simply to meet expenses, a bargain considering some ships offer no Internet for the crew.
On a recent afternoon, Fior is one of those getting with other crew members into one of the minivans. His ship has brought cement in from South Korea.
They’re going shopping at Westfield Southcenter.
For a $10 donation — meaning strapped sailors don’t pay — the mission offers shopping round-trips.
Back home, he says, he’ll wear those sneakers and friends will know these are originals, because they know his ship comes to the USA.
Besides sneakers, Fior has bought an Asus laptop at Best Buy for $575. It’s for his daughter, a nurse. It’d probably be a couple hundred dollars more in the Philippines.
In any case, they trust goods sold in America.
A chief engineer such as Fior, who’s been going to sea for 31 years, makes $7,600 a month on a nine-month contract.
A couple of weeks of that salary is more than the annual average household income in the Philippines, says Ken Hawkins, executive director of the Seattle Seafarers group.
Fior has four children, who all went to private school. He owns two homes. He’s started a business renting sound equipment and another raising pigs.
The trade-off is being away for three-quarters of the year.
“We get lonely, but we need to work for our family,” says Fior. The sailors are not what you’d call demonstrative about personal stuff.
“This is our profession,” says Fior. “Our job.”
Ernesto Gelera, 47, is the first engineer on the 560-foot Tokonarui Bay. He’s been going out to sea for 25 years, is married and has a 9-year-old daughter.
At Southcenter, he stopped at JC Penney and bought his wife a pair of Levi’s for $37.
“Over $60 in the Philippines,” he says.
The four guys in the shopping group have all made purchases at Victoria’s Secret. They’ve all bought fragrances with names like “Amber Romance,” “Pure Seduction” and “Mango Temptation.”
Sometimes they also buy other Victoria’s Secret items. When you’re gone for much of the year, it isn’t easy on relationships.
Divorce is high among the men, says Hawkins.
“They have families they think about every day,” he says. “Some of them have a child born while they’re at sea, and have never seen.”
On another day, the mission’s minivan picks up crew members from the 750-foot bulk carrier BTG Kailash at the grain terminal.
The ship is being loaded with soybeans and then heading to Qingdao in China.
Three of the crew are going to Wal-Mart. One is looking for a smartphone, another for vitamin pills (he trusts those sold in the U.S.) and other personal items, a third for some shorts.
Another crew member, Bojan Batagey, the chief engineer, is going to the mission’s offices near the Southwest Spokane Street Bridge. He’s from Slovenia and has been going out to sea for 32 years.
The mission’s center is a place to hang out, play pool, a change of pace from the monotony of the ship, which has no Internet, no TV, just some DVDs. There is a computer, and a television, and, if you want, the driver can stop by a convenience store so you can buy a beer.
Batagey skips the beer. He tells about life on the ships these days, with random tests. Booze it up and you’re gone.
He remembers the old days, and going to the Catholic Seafarers Center on First Avenue. The merchant ships now dock in farther south terminals, and so the Catholic group has moved to the Mission to Seafarers.
How to spend these few hours away from the ship?
Batagey says he might email his wife, although as he explains, “After 25 years, sometimes I have nothing to say.”
Early the next morning, the BTG Kailash sails out. It’ll be a 17-day trip, and then onto whatever destination is next.
Not much romance, really. So a trip to the mall, and bringing back a pair of Stephen Curry sneakers, or just hanging out at the mission, helps.
Ken Hawkins says to think of modern seafaring as kind of like the trucks you see delivering Fritos to convenience stores.
“Only this route might be the Pacific Rim,” he says.