“I think people come to work in the charity sector not for the financial rewards – you don’t get stock options of Christmas bonuses – but because, for the most part, they really want to make a difference, especially in the lives of communities that are struggling or having a hard time,” Michael Edwards, manager of the Seafarers’ Advice and Information Line (SAIL), told Fishing News.

Established in 1996 as part of Greenwich Citizens’ Advice Bureau with funding from the Seamen’s Hospital Society (now the Seafarers’ Hospital Society), SAIL began life as the Seafarers’ Benefits Advice Line. More than two decades later, the charity now deals with over 1,000 clients every year from across the maritime sector – fishing, merchant navy, Royal Navy and Royal Marines – offering advice on a wide range of topics, including financial concerns, benefits and housing issues.

Michael, originally from South Wales, joined SAIL in October last year, bringing to the role more than 20 years of experience in the charity sector. “In 2003 I started working for a homeless charity in Camberwell – and I’ve never looked back, really. I worked in homelessness for five years, doing a variety of jobs from basic skills training to case working.

“In 2007 I then moved into mental health, managing a befriending and advocacy project in Lambeth.

“Camberwell and Brixton are very socially deprived areas, and I was working with marginalised communities. I absolutely loved the role. It was really challenging, very interesting work.”

After 15 years working in mental health, last year Michael decided to change course. “I thought OK, I need to do something different. I saw the post at SAIL advertised with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau Greenwich.

The SAIL team, with the Mission’s Peter Dade, on the quayside in Hartlepool. SAIL has increased its presence in the area in light of the ongoing shellfish crisis. “We were talking to fishermen about how the crisis was unfolding there and what it meant for them individually,” said Michael. “It was heartbreaking to hear some of the stories. There’s a hope that things will get better, but worryingly, the evidence isn’t showing that. What’s going to happen to the next generation in that area?”

“I knew fishing was one of the most dangerous jobs in the UK, and it’s also a community that’s marginalised – one that people don’t really know a lot about.

“We know the fish that arrives on our plate when we go to a restaurant, but we’ve no idea what it takes to get that fish there, the journey it’s undertaken, and the people involved. I just thought the opportunity was something really interesting.”

Michael’s application was successful, and one of his first challenges in the role was to increase the profile of SAIL, especially within the fishing community – a task which involves improved marketing
of its services, increased social media engagement, and quayside visits. These haven’t always been easy.

“I’ve had a very sharp learning curve. Just me turning up at a quayside wearing a hi-vis and saying: ‘I’m from SAIL’ – there is a kind of mistrust, as in: ‘We don’t know who you are, we don’t know what your agenda is.’ Sometimes people think I’m from the tax office or the MCA. They see someone who they don’t recognise.”

However, through a desire to learn, adapt and make a difference, Michael is beginning to change perceptions. “I’ve learned about this proud, resilient community which isn’t good at asking for help – and more often than not provides help and support to other people.

“So when I was going up to fishermen and saying: ‘I’m from SAIL, do you need debt advice or help?’ – it was the wrong approach. Instead, I learned to ask them what they fish for, about their boat, and their crew – to show an interest in their world.”

Michael with long-serving adviser Nida during a supervision session. “I meet with our advisers frequently to ensure they’re OK in the job, or if there is any extra support they need,” he said. “The more staff are well looked after, and are happy and motivated in their jobs, and not feeling like they’re working towards burn-out, the better it is for the people we’re trying to help.”

Michael’s position also sees him attending events and exhibitions across the UK to help in his quest to raise the profile of the service and better engage with fishing communities.

“A big part of my role is engaging with stakeholders, such as the Fishermen’s Mission and the Seafarers’ Hospital Society, who work in partnership to put on the SeaFit physical and mental wellbeing events. I’ve been trying to have a presence at those SeaFit events. I was also in Aberdeen for the Skipper Expo. I’ve found a lot of my visits have been really educational.”

As well as travelling the length and breadth of the UK to engage with fishing communities, Michael also looks after the welfare of his team of remote workers.

“In my day-to-day role I don’t actually deliver any casework or work directly with clients, but I have to make sure my team have everything they need – as that’s the most important part of the whole service.

“At the moment, in this climate, debt and benefits are the biggest issues we are seeing. Our advisers need to have everything they need to be responsive, and to give accurate and up-to- date advice to work with that fisherman, or their family, until we’ve completely resolved the issue or reached a place where they’re a lot more comfortable.”

Michael says that he is ‘very proud’ of his team and the work they do. “It’s very humbling when we’ve been able to help people sort out their debt problems and get them back onto a firmer financial footing, and seeing the difference that makes to their mental health.

“In a world where there is so much negativity and so much difficult news, to know that your actions are having such a positive impact is endlessly rewarding.

“For us, that’s the Christmas bonus.”

For more information about the free, confidential services that SAIL provides, visit: sailine.org.uk or call freephone 0800 160 1842.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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