There are some things you don’t mind leaving behind when going to sea. Filling the car with gas is one of them. Washing your own dishes is another. Holidays though stand out as something most mariners could do without missing. It certainly takes the pressure off of gift shopping for extended family and large family gatherings. On the other hand it’s a painful reminder that you’re absence is being felt yet again by those you are closest to. We’ll at least for some of us there is still holiday pay and a good chance of turkey at dinner but I would trade it any Christmas for my grandmother’s scalloped potatoes and ham.
My first Christmas at sea is memorable because of a blizzard that shut down Texas from Houston to Corpus Christi. Looking out the bridge windows it reminded me of a Christmas Eve snowstorm in Maine. I didn’t mind being at work that night until I made my way down to the officer’s mess after watch to scrounge for leftovers from the dinner I had slept through. The captain, who was from Texas, had gone ashore and bought a real Christmas tree. With help from his wife and kids he had decorated it while we were still in port. Smelling those needles in the soft glow of Christmas lights made me wonder how many Christmas’ I would be spending at sea over the course of my career.
Last year was probably my most memorable Christmas away from home. Like this year the ship was in port, not in Singapore as I am today but in Northern Germany. The Captain had made a few phone calls and finagled our way into a berth rather than a North Sea anchorage for the holiday as was originally planned. Everyone had gotten either Christmas Eve or day off so along with the second assistant and cadet I made my way by train to Bremen hoping all the way for spiced wine and girls in lederhosen.
In the old city square we found plenty of hot wine but the lederhosen was sparse. It didn’t matter though as we imbibed and mingled with the locals who were well on their way to red-faced renditions of German Christmas carols. The food, drink and décor were festive and exactly how I had always pictured Christmas in a medieval city.
The following morning as the sun rose over the bell ringing steeples of Bremerhaven a small brass band arrived at the gangway and asked if they could put on a Christmas concert during lunch. As the trumpets and French horns played Mozart’s Greensleeves the crew opened the care packages I had put in front of everyone’s door on the mid watch.
These small hand sewn bags had been stuffed a month earlier by elderly ladies volunteering for charities from New York to Georgia. They are distributed by Chaplains form the Seaman’s Mission every year to ships that call in U.S. ports. Some had little hand written notes amongst the tubes of toothpaste and socks wishing us happy holidays and God’s protection at sea.
That evening the 3-person stewards department turned out a full spread for the 22 man crew, steamed crab legs included. Eating with a wiper from the engine department I reflected on how sharing a holiday with a group of mostly complete strangers is a very unique arrangement. Most people would never think of spending a holiday away from their family whereas merchant mariners at best get half of their holidays at home over the course of their career not to mention birthdays and anniversaries.
Usually a Christmas at sea passes just like any other day on the calendar. The 25th though seems hardest on the men and women with children at home. Growing up with a dad at sea I remember how my mother would explain why dad wasn’t going to be around this year to open presents. Somehow it seemed normal to have a dad who went to work for four or five or six months at a time. That was until I started to realize that my friends dad’s only worked while we were in school.
I especially remember how every time the phone would ring on Christmas it would cause every one to put down their new toys and come running to the receiver to see if it was him. If we were lucky and he was in port then he could talk to each of the four boys in turn where as if it was a single side band call patched through a shore station the conversations were much shorter.
Today any one of us can pick up the satellite phone and call our loved one’s whenever we please. This has made it easier to communicate but in a way harder on the families because we seem so close but are still an ocean or two away. In the past when a sailor went to sea he was gone save for a letter or telegram.
This year I’m glad to be in port and not pushing a bow wake. I’ve now spent four Christmas’s at sea and still wonder how many more I have to go. This isn’t the holiday I miss being home for the most. New Years holds a significance that makes me really yearn to be among my friends and family rather than standing a watch at sea. It just isn’t the same when you are wishing a stranger over the VHF radio a happy and prosperous New Year. Something I’ve also done four times.
Deep Water Sailor December 24th, 2009