Plans for a new seafarers’ centre in Port Hedland to support the thousands of seafarers who come through the port every year have been boosted by a $2 million State Government contribution through Pilbara Ports Authority.

Announcing the allocation, Ports Minister Rita Saffioti said the existing centre, which is nearly 50 years old, was no longer fit-for-purpose, with the demand for services growing exponentially as trade increases at the Port of Port Hedland.

Last financial year, the Port of Port Hedland accommodated over 6,300 vessel movements, with more than 3,000 seafarers visiting the Port Hedland Seafarers Centre each month before COVID-19.

The new centre will be built on the former Sealanes site on Richardson Street in Port Hedland.

Seafarers Centre Operations Manager John Hague said the new centre, near the entrance to the harbour, would be a multi-level keynote building that would cater for a range of community events and conferences as well as the many services for seafarers.

“Before COVID we had about 38,000 seafarers a year through the centre,” Mr Hague said. “We are the largest seafarers’ centre per capita in Australia and we would be giving other centres around the world a nudge.

“That’s why we need the capacity of the new centre. We have grown from around 3,000 a year to 38,000.”

Seafarers spent about $5 million a year in the local economy, he said.

The Seafarers Centre was at the heart of the response during the COVID-19 outbreak on the manganese carrier the Patricia Oldendorff off Port Hedland in September and October last year.

“We became a focal point for the community giving donations for seafarers,” Mr Hague said. “The response was overwhelming; the community got right behind it.”

Restrictions on crew movements instituted because of COVID-19 meant some seafarers were stranded on vessels well past their usual contracts.

In the aftermath of the Patricia Oldendorff, Port Hedland has now become a hub for international crew change overs.

Under the arrangements, the Seafarers Centre has transported about 100 crew members a month to and from their vessels over the past six months.

Mr Hague said incoming international seafarers arrived in Perth, stayed in hotel quarantine for 14 days and were then flown to Port Hedland and taken out to their vessels.

Outgoing crew were met landside by police, given a travel exemption, taken to the airport and flown to Perth where they then boarded international flights out of the country.

Globally, the plight of seafarers is being tackled under The Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change.

The declaration, with about 300 signatories, is aimed at solving the crew change crisis.

Pilbara Ports Authority is a signatory to the declaration through its membership of Ports Australia.

Mr Hague said the Seafarers Centre had modified its services to assist seafarers who were not allowed onshore under COVID-19 restrictions.

“Mission to Seafarers is a Christian mission, we’re here for the welfare of the seafarers,” Mr Hague said. “That means helping with things that make their life onboard easier, offering counselling and religious-based support when needed.”

Since COVID-19 hit, the centre has sent more than 600 care packages to about 240 vessels and has introduced online shopping catalogues that enable vessels to place orders for their crew.

The Seafarers Centre distributes the orders and has delivered about 4,500 shopping bags to vessels.

Mr Hague said it was a service that would continue after COVID-19 restrictions on seafarers’ movements were eased and they were allowed onshore.

“Seafarers coming onshore only have three-and-a-half hours, so time is limited. We can do the online ordering for them, they just pick up the shopping and they have time to relax, have a beer at the bar, talk to people; we provide online services, so they can talk to their families,” he said.

“After so much time walking on steel decks with the thump of the engine, all some of them want to do for a little while is take their shoes off and walk on the grass.”

The centre is supported by Pilbara Ports Authority, Fortescue, Roy Hill, BHP and Rio Tinto.

Revenue also came from its shop, bar, its operation of the Visitors Centre for the Town of Port Hedland and various tours, including the industrial tourism options of harbour tours and tours of Fortescue and BHP operations.

The harbour tour won a 2020 Trip Advisor Travellers’ Choice Award.

The $2 million State Government contribution towards the new centre comes through Pilbara Ports Authority, with land purchased in the proposed Maritime Precinct.

Minister Saffioti said the project was the first example of how the Hedland Maritime Initiative intended to partner with industry to transform unused space for the purpose of developing a Maritime Precinct.

The Hedland Maritime Initiative aims to revitalise Port Hedland’s West End by creating an attractive maritime hub of international standing, which will increase visitors and create new economic opportunities.

“This is the first planned development for the new Maritime Precinct, and I look forward to seeing the West End of Port Hedland revitalised into a vibrant precinct the whole community can enjoy,” Minister Saffioti said.

It also has a longstanding partnership with the Clontarf Academy across WA.

The safety theme continues with Road Train Education sessions with local schools in the Pilbara and Mid-West to teach children about trucks and heavy vehicles and their operating capabilities and restrictions.

“These sessions are all about providing children with awareness of how long it takes for the quad road trains to slow down and stop, while also providing them an insight into the cabs and features of modern day, industry leading trucks and technology,” James said.

QUBE runs similar sessions with Grey Nomads to ensure they are aware how long it takes for a quad road train to slow down and stop.