Delivering Christmas

Crew members of a cargo ship wave after they received a Christmas tree at the port of Hamburg. Credit: AXEL HEIMKEN/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

Most of our toys, gifts, and Christmas dinner ingredients will be delivered by seafarers this year, but much like Santa’s elves, most will miss out on the festivities due to the tough demands of the job. Fortunately, a number of organisations are on hand to give them valuable support during what can be a lonely and stressful time of year

Christmas and New Year is traditionally a time to eat, drink, and me merry with family and friends, but many thousands of seafarers will spend the festive season miles away from their nearest and dearest, often at sea or in a foreign port or with limited access to the phone or internet.

Of course, maritime work is all about living away from home and officers and crew know how to cope with the circumstances, but the holiday season can magnify the sense of isolation and disconnect leading to feelings of sadness, anger, or resentment.

If a ship is berthed in port and everything is closed, seafarers may have to spend more time thinking about families back home. Many will have children and the thought of missing out on celebrations can be very testing.

According to a recent survey by UK-based mental health charity, Mind, one in ten people in the general population have considered taking their own life because of the festive period, and over a quarter (26%) would not feel able to ask for help at Christmas if they were struggling emotionally. So, it’s reasonable to assume that seafarers are even more vulnerable during the holidays.

Fortunately, various maritime organisations and charities are on hand to provide support and offer access to counselling, advice, church services, and even gifts to lift the spirits during December.

The heavy focus on presents at Christmas might appear materialistic, but to a seafarer the effect of receiving even a small gift can be powerful – a message that they are not alone and someone cares for them.

The Mission to Seafarers has announced an ambitious plan to distribute gifts to seafarers this year at the ports of Belfast, Hong Kong, Singapore, Geraldton, Yokohama, Lyttleton, Albany, Richards Bay, Rotterdam, Tilbury, Seattle, and Antwerp. One notable example is Tilbury, where donations from the local community and businesses have enabled QVSR’s Seafarers’ Centre to collect and wrap 2,726 Christmas parcels, above the 2,500 target.

Many of these ports will also host social events providing food and drinks, games, and choir services. Details can be accessed here.

The Catholic charity Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea) is running a Christmas appeal asking for donations to fund gifts, such as chocolates and toiletries, socks, prayer books, and other items packaged in shoeboxes or woolly hats, for seafarers worldwide.

The items themselves are donated and packed by local schools and parishes, but the money will help fund ship visits to deliver the gifts. Some money will also pay for trips to take seafarers to local churches for Mass or organise a priest to say Mass on board, which is important for those who seek holy worship at Christmas.

Spreading the Christmas cheer even further, the charity is asking the public to send a personal message to a seafarer to be delivered in a Christmas card.

Better access to the internet over the holidays can lift seafarers’ moods, enabling things like video calls with partners and children or entertainment in the form of movies or music streaming, etc.

Almost two thirds (60%) of respondents to a recent survey by the International Chamber of Shipping and the European Community Shipowners’ Associations said they believed the provision of internet for personal use may have improved the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers, while 69% said it is good for morale.

A decent internet connection can support the use of apps that give access to social media groups and organisations or mental health support if it’s needed.

The Wellness at Sea app was launched by the Sailors’ Society in 2016 as part of a wider programme to help sailors struggling with mental health issues and low morale while on board.

Available in iOS and Android formats, it gives users access to various healthy living tips, recipes, and exercises to help seafarers monitor and maintain physical and mental health.

Although ship owners are connecting more and more vessels to the internet, evidence suggests the benefits are not always trickling down to seafarers who still encounter data usage caps, restricted access to email, social media or video calls, and high pay for use costs.

In an effort to tackle this obstacle, the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) now provides its SeafarerHelp service on the free-to-use messaging apps WhatsApp and Viber.

The service offers support to seafarers with concerns related to family issues, personal problems, repatriation, or health issues, and it’s open 24/7 on Christmas and New Year’s Day. The apps use a mobile internet connection to send messages and make calls and if the signal drops out SeafarerHelp always endeavours to call seafarers back.

Meanwhile, Mission to Seafarers’ network of chaplains, staff, and volunteers remains available at Mission ports 365 days a year to offer seafarers mental health counselling or just a listening ear.

Shipping companies also have an important role to play in ensuring seafarer wellbeing over the festive season. Apart from internet access, they can ensure crew get enough rest and stick to legal limits on how many hours they work.

Santa gets most of the praise for Christmas deliveries, but in the real world, seafarers are responsible for moving 95% of UK trade and essential to creating the traditional festive season.

The new ‘12 Days of Christmas’ video campaign was launched by maritime professionals’ union Nautilus International to shine a light on our reliance on seafarers. Each day in the countdown to Christmas it will showcase a new festive item brought to British shores by seafarers, ranging from panettone from Italy to toys from China.

Mark Dickinson, general secretary of Nautilus International, said: “It is often surprising when people realise that so much of trade is moved by sea and as such, requires the often-underappreciated work of the maritime professionals who facilitate this. It is a simple fact that without seafarers – working in often challenging conditions and spending significant periods of time away from home – we wouldn’t have Christmas as we know it,” he concludes.