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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.
'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