Gifts, wi-fi and a listening ear – how maritime welfare charities create Christmas

21 November 2019

As Christmas approaches, maritime welfare charities often see a spike in demand for their services. Greg Watts explores how one of these charities – Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea – will be supporting seafarers visiting UK ports this month

'One seafarer I spoke to told me he has never spent a Christmas with his nine-year-old son due to his working pattern,' said Rev Joe O’Donnell, Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea port chaplain on the River Clyde.

Christmas is seen as a time to relax with family and friends, but for many seafarers it is business as usual. They are likely to be working on deck hundreds or thousands of miles out at sea, or unloading or loading a vessel in a port somewhere.

'Christmas can affect seafarers differently. If their ship is tied up in port and everything closed, it can give seafarers more time to think about their families and this can cause anxiety and loneliness,' explained Rev Joe.

'A lot of the guys have children and some of them are on nine-to-11 month contracts. Just the thought of them missing such an important celebration can be very testing.

'Most seafarers at any time will tell you it's difficult being so far away from their families, and sometimes they won't be able to even communicate, due to signal problems on their phone. When they are in ports during Christmas and have a bit more free time, it's challenging for them.'

If possible, Rev Joe will offer to take seafarers to Christmas services in the area. 'Last year at our Christmas carol service in the port, a crew member from one of the ships chatted with me and said this was his first voyage since his wife had died. We had been supporting him during his wife's illness and eventually helped get him home a couple of weeks before she passed away.

Rev Joe O'Donnell 1.jpg
Rev Joe O’Donnell, Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea port chaplain

'His wife was only in her early 30s with a very young daughter, so it had been a very difficult time for him being away from his daughter, and being so far from home during Christmas time didn’t help.'

Many Catholic parishes and schools around Britain support Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea port chaplains at Christmas by putting together shoe boxes containing gifts such as woolly hats, chocolate and toiletries, and also sign cards.

Last year, Bryony Watson, a port chaplain in Immingham, Lincolnshire, went along to St Joseph's Primary Catholic Academy in Cleethorpes to help pupils pack shoe boxes for seafarers. The boxes usually contain things such as toiletries, chocolate, socks, and snacks.

She then delivered 22 shoeboxes to the crew of MV Orient Champion, a bulker heading for New Orleans. The crew were particularly touched that the children had thought of them and given them gifts. One seafarer told Bryony that it is the first time in his whole career that he had received a Christmas present.

Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea works closely with other maritime charities, such as the Fisherman's Mission and the Mission to Seafarers, and although it is the official Catholic maritime agency, it provides help to all seafarers, whatever their beliefs.

A lot of the guys have children and some of them are on nine-to-11 month contracts. Just the thought of them missing such an important celebration can be very testing

For example, when Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea port chaplain Doug Duncan supported the crew of the Malaviya Seven – an offshore supply ship that spent eighteen months stuck in Aberdeen in a dispute over unpaid wages – he not only took the Catholic crew members to a local Catholic church but also took the Hindu members to a Hindu temple in Dundee.

The port chaplains understand the isolation and loneliness many seafarers experience. The question they will usually ask when they go onboard a vessel and meet the crew is, 'Is there anything I can do to help you?'

They can provide things such as wi-fi routers, mobile phone top-up cards and woolly hats. They also can offer transport to the local shops or help book an appointment at a GP surgery. And if a seafarer is admitted to hospital, they will visit him and, if asked, liaise with his family back home.

There are other times when they might be alerted by a crew member to issues over pay and conditions onboard a ship, or human trafficking. In these instances, they will contact the ITF, Border Force, or the police.

Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea also operates a number of seafarers' centres. Its latest is in Southampton, which was built with a grant from the Department for Transport and opened in September by maritime minister Nusrat Ghani.

Volunteer Hannah Forest visits a ship in Plymouth

Assisting port chaplains are teams of ship visitors – volunteers who give a few hours each week. Twenty-four-year-old Hannah Forrest, a psychology graduate, has been a ship visitor in Plymouth for the last two years.

'I remember seeing some advertising for Sea Sunday and thinking that ship visiting was something I could do. I was unemployed at the time, and felt that I needed to get out and do something,' she said.

When she visited her first ship, she was surprised at how small the crew numbers were for such a big vessel. 'I was a bit cautious at one dock because the ground was quite slippery due to china clay, and there are lots of big lorries and cranes around. It’s hard to find the docks in Plymouth unless you are looking for them, as they are tucked away. It was fascinating to discover this new maritime world right under my nose.'

When Hannah began ship visiting, she soon learned about the strain of being away from your family for such a long period. 'One visit that sticks with me was when we met a seafarer with a young child back home. He had over four months left of his contract, and said he was homesick. He said he was worried that his daughter wouldn't recognise him, or would be intimidated by him when he returned home. We were able to reassure him, listen to his worries, and encourage him. He said that he felt better for talking about things.'

Her parish, Christ the King in Plymouth, supports the work of Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea. 'The generosity of the people in my parish was wonderful to see. At Easter, I only asked for chocolate and biscuits, and in the end I had to ask my housemate for help to get all the stuff to the port! Almost £150 was donated and not only chocolate eggs, but other confectionery, toiletries, blankets and clothes too!'

Meeting people from all over the world and being able to hear about their lives is one of the things Hannah enjoys about ship visiting. 'I feel very privileged to be invited onboard ships by the seafarers and have a chat with them. It is very rewarding.'