It can be tough to be away from home at Christmas, so visiting seafarers appreciate the support offered on their visits to UK ports. The Covid-19 pandemic will make things a little different this year, but as seafarer centres around the UK tell Sarah Robinson, they are determined to make Christmas as good as possible
Southampton Seafarers' Centre is run by the Sailors' Society. Last year, more than 1,000 seafarers visited in the run-up to Christmas and the centre staff made it festive with decorations, music, food and snacks.
The Sailors' Society's ship visiting team also gave out around 200 presents in the centre and on ships in the city's port, thanks to the local guild and churches who wrapped up gifts of hats and toiletries.
While the charity won't be able to invite parties of volunteers to wrap presents at the centre this year, some volunteers have offered to wrap gifts at home, and the centre staff are working hard to source presents so that seafarers don't miss out.
The Sailors' Society is still not sure what restrictions will look like at Christmas, but will welcome crews into the centre as long as they are able to. While the number of seafarers coming into the centre are down due to restricted movement, the charity is bringing seafarers to the centre during changeovers, providing them with food, and making sure they have a safe bubble where they can stay until they are able to go onboard.
Seafarers' Centre manager Simon Mobsby said: 'We know that being away from your family at Christmas can be a big sacrifice for seafarers. Some things might be different this year, but we're still working hard to give them a warm welcome and some Christmas treats.'
The Sailors' Society also offers a free service where crews arriving in the port can get post delivered to the centre and staff bring letters and parcels to the ships. 'It might be they only way they can get a Christmas present this year,' said Mr Mobsby.
Christmas at the Tilbury Seafarers' Centre is always a very busy time, with the main emphasis on collecting and wrapping Christmas presents for those who will be at sea during the festive season.
'We have a great network within the local community and around Essex,' said Alexander Campbell, the chair of the centre, which is run by the Queen Victoria Seamen's Rest (QVSR) charity. 'Donations of toiletries and knitted goods come in all through the year from local organisations, churches and individual collectors, and we are also supported by a grant of £5,000 from Seafarers UK.
'We normally arrange Christmas wrapping sessions at the centre where our army of over 60 volunteers help us to wrap the parcels, and last year our chaplains distributed more than 2,500 presents. Every year we also hold a carol service attended by seafarers, port staff and the local community; last year we had a Filipino choir made up of crew from one of the ships in port.
'With the pandemic, we have had to be a bit more creative with organising the parcels this year. During lockdown, while the centre was closed and staff put on furlough, our volunteer knitters continued to make hats, gloves and scarves, while other volunteers wrote Christmas cards, cut Christmas paper, and collected items for the parcels.
'As we knew we would not be able to hold the present wrapping sessions in the centre, we organised a drop off and collection for our eager band of volunteers to wrap the parcels at home. At present our chaplains are still able to go aboard ships in full PPE, and even if this changes we will deliver our Santa sacks to the bottom of the gangway. Sadly, there will be no carol service this year, but we are determined to make Christmas special for the seafarers who visit the Port of London.'
Liverpool Seafarers Centre is run through a partnership of the Mission to Seafarers and the Apostleship of the Sea. At Christmas, the centre usually provides gifts to seafarers on ships in the ports of Liverpool, Tranmere and Eastham. Presents are provided in a recyclable gift bag, and each seafarer receives a mug, a branded pen, a note pad, woolly hat, confectionery, toiletries, playing cards and a piece of Christmas cake. 'Also included is a handwritten Christmas card signed by someone from the centre, which we feel is important rather than giving them a generic card,' said the centre's chief executive John Wilson.
'In the run-up to Christmas,' he added, 'we go on ships to lead services and we invite seafarers into the centre for a service on Christmas Eve, followed by refreshments. Last year we had 60 attending. We ensure everyone has a method of communication to contact home, whether that is in the centre or on their ships.'
This year, the centre is closed due to the pandemic, but chaplains will be going onboard ships to lead services. 'We usually have 10-12 services on ships but we anticipate there will be a greater demand this year,' said Mr Wilson. 'We will still be providing gifts, which are made up from donations we receive at the centre, but we will ensure that, along with the usual items, there are some better quality gifts this year. We recognise that this year has probably been the most difficult in seafarers' working lives, so we will mark that in some way.'
Aberdeen Seafarers Centre is an independent charity run in partnership with the Apostleship of the Sea, the Mission to Seafarers and the Sailors' Society. 'We normally begin ordering in items for the Christmas gifts in July/August and then begin wrapping them in September/October,' said chaplain Howard Drysdale.
Volunteers come to the centre and wrap the presents, stuffing woolly hats with items such as toothpaste, toothbrush, badge, pencil, notebook, keyring, shoe-shine, shampoo, soap, deodorant wipes, wrist band, fridge magnet, and comb – 'not forgetting a sweetie!'
After giving out presents in late October to the standby vessels which may not be returning to Aberdeen before Christmas, distribution begins in December to the 'one-off' visiting ships, especially the cargo vessels.
'Normally we would go onboard,' said Mr Drysdale, 'but currently this is not being allowed, certainly on the oil-related vessels where visits to the bottom of the gangway are the norm.'
Because of social distancing requirements, the centre has not been able to get its usual group of volunteers together to wrap presents, so a new plan has been devised. 'We will look to purchase snoods (useful items even before Covid) and magnetic calendars along with the traditional woolly hats – only these would not be wrapped as normal. We will give these three items to each crew member on the visiting vessels, probably at the bottom of the gangway, along with an apology for the lack of the traditional service, with the hope that we would be able to get back to normal for Christmas 2021.'