A Feeling of Home while at Sea: Seamen’s Church Institute’s Christmas at Sea

Article audio (courtesy of Don Sheetz)

by Susan Huppert, NAMMA

Knitting needles bring Christmas joy and global impact.

Knitting, like other hobbies, can be personally gratifying when you see the end product. 

But, for 102-year-old Ms. Vicki, in Fresno, Calif., satisfaction isn’t what she sees when she finishes knitting hats and scarves for The Seamens’ Church Institute. It’s what she knows about the items she donates. By Christmas, a seafarer on the cold deck of a massive ship will likely pull her gift snuggly over his ears and know that someone cares.   

“The essence of Christmas at Sea is making seafarers feel at home,” said Joanne Bartosik, Senior Manager, Development and Christmas at Sea.  

The Christmas at Sea program attempts to bridge the gap between stranger and friend through a well-coordinated effort to give a Christmas gift to each seafarer that comes their way.

Donations from around the country are delivered to the program headquarters for months before Christmas. Sets including a hand-knit scarf and hat affectionally referred to as “knits” are key components of the Christmas giving campaign. These knitters are members of the oldest, largest knitting-crocheting charity in North America. Volunteers also sew ditty bags and write personal cards as they align with the mission of the Christmas at Sea outreach.

Meanwhile, others continue to jockey to secure a slot on the Port Packing calendar. These individuals and groups complete the gift bags for delivery by adding hotel sized toiletries, candies, playing cards and other items. The network of commitment across the globe culminates annually just prior to Thanksgiving when the SCI chaplains and Associate Chaplains begin delivering the Christmas gifts.

Last year, 923 individuals and 127 volunteer groups participated in the Christmas effort by combining 19,958 donations for those at sea. This year’s year-to-date numbers are up by 36 percent according to Bartosik.

“I don’t have to recruit,” said Bartosik.

“We live in a fluid society and people take their knitting and their stories with them and they share it with their friends,” she said.

It is also generational. A daughter picks it up from her mother or grandmother.”

The program dates back 125 years according to Tim Wong, Director of the SCI port ministry in Newark, N.J. Port Newark serves the largest east coast port complex in the U.S. Wong oversees the chaplains who distribute the gifts to the international seafarers on the vessels which the center serves during the Christmas season in Port Newark, Port Elizabeth and the Staten Island and Saint Carteret terminals.

The Newark center offers all seafarers, port workers and truckers an opportunity to relax, access Wi-Fi and find spiritual nourishment and advocacy for those at sea. It provides hospitality to strangers, a fitting description of seafarers who are strangers in each port where they dock.

The program keeps growing, as does the potential impact. With nearly 2 million international seafarers worldwide there is plenty of room for more needle workers to make a global difference.

Whether you are 102 years old, or like Helga Krug in North Carolina who donated 986 knits to Christmas at Sea last year, every gift matters to those living and working at sea.

Photo: Seamen’s Church Institute Flickr


NAMMA members receive a print copy of The MARE Report, NAMMA’s annual magazines for seafarer’s welfare professionals