Seafarers of the world have found a warm welcome at the waterfront centre for more than a century.

The waterfront used to be an extension of the sea, and not of the land. Along Quay St and in all the little back streets were chandleries and marine suppliers and the offices of shipping agents. No one came down to the waterfront who did not have business to transact or work to do.

Now, the business of the port has been shoved east and much of the waterfront has become the city's playground. At the Viaduct and Britomart, upscale restaurants have opened at a dizzying rate; designer boutiques and high-end fashion stores are scattered in the mix.

The newest development, fronted by Josh Emett of MasterChef fame, carries an echo of the area's past in its name, Seafarers: it occupies the tower block that was once a lodging house for ancient mariners and old salts.

At the front door of its signature restaurant Ostro is the 2m-high image, resplendent in beard and beanie, of Tommy Doyle, who lived in the building for most of the 1970s.


Tommy would probably have found the prices a bit steep at Ostro and he might have wondered at having his image hijacked for a place aimed at a well-heeled clientele. But it is at least a hat-tip to history, which most Auckland developers, assuming they know what history is, are quick to erase.

In fact, the Seafarers building's original purpose has not entirely passed into history. It survives in the Auckland International Seafarers Centre, on the first floor of the building's Quay St frontage. It's all that remains of the Mission to Seafarers (in less inclusive days it was called the Mission to Seamen, of course).

The chairman of the mission, Chris Barradale, who meets me at the centre, has the cut of an old officer about him. His tie is impeccably knotted and his carefully chosen words dense with precise data. An Englishman who emigrated on the 1966 delivery voyage of the ill-starred Wahine, he worked for the Union Steamship Company in the days when it had a virtual monopoly on transtasman trade. He reels off a list of ships he commanded over his quarter-century as a master.

His maritime connection remains in his role as a trainer for officer cadets at the Maritime School a few doors along the road, and also in the mission, which he's headed up for 35 years.

Now 110 years old, it's descended from a Sailors' Home that goes back to 1887 and though it began as a form of faith outreach, Barradale explains, it is not fundamentally a religious organisation.

"The citizens of Auckland were wanting to make strangers welcome in our midst," he says, "and of course there is a Christian calling to do the same thing, so between the two you have everyone who works here covered."

That history may be read in the centre's floor plan, about half of which is given over to an ecumenical chapel - a Catholic sister, two Anglican priests and a Salvation Army major do duties here. But Barradale says most show up to take advantage of cheap internet and phone facilities to contact family at home. The place was busy with Filipino sailors after the recent typhoon, but on average between 550 and 700 a month come through the doors.

"It gives them the chance to mix and mingle," says Barradale. "They know this place exists. They can take their chances in the city, but this is a place just for them."

The romantic ruffian image of sailors on shore leave causing hell in waterfront bars is a thing of the past. Yet liquor played a part in the mission's foundation.

"The object was to get the seafarers out of the waterfront bars because they were a magnet to the settlers," explains Barradale.

"Nobody wanted to stop seafarers from drinking. Seafarers and drink go together - I will attest to that after 50 years in the industry - but it was a way of getting sailors between ships off the waterfront to somewhere they had a bed and food."

What's more, ships that once took weeks to unload are now gone in a matter of hours.

"They haven't got time to meet people any more."

The mission survives on carefully managed legacies of past years: funds from the British shipping lines and the Harbour Board have long dried up. But with its 99-year lease not due to expire until the 2070s, it's a fair bet the Seafarers Centre will have a lamp burning in the window for a while yet.