Christmas at sea evokes thoughts of families and missed joys

It’s Christmas Eve, 1,000 miles and a three-day run from Honolulu. Our 660-foot chemical tanker is taking deep rolls in the large northwesterly swell, coming at us broad on our starboard bow. Since it’s too rough to sleep, I sit in the recliner I’m lucky to have in my stateroom. The chair is secured to the deck with straps to keep it from sliding across the room. Leaning back, my mind drifts, and I daydream of my wife, Christmas, and home…

A roaring fire is burning in the woodstove, and I see that the cats have decided that a string of Christmas lights is really their toy. My wife hands me a double-tall latte she just made, then sits down next to me with a cup of tea. We look out at the gray Pacific Northwest sky, wondering if it will be a wet or white Christmas.
Suddenly the phone in my stateroom rings, jarring me out of my holiday daydream. Lifting the receiver, I hear the 8-12 third mate cheerfully say, “Merry Christmas Eve, Kelly. It’s time to get ready for your watch.” I thank him for the wake-up call and hang up.
When I’m ready, I open the door to my stateroom. A bag hanging on the outside doorknob swings heavily, surprising me. Looking inside, I see candy bars, a pocketknife and cologne — a sailor’s Christmas “goodie bag” from Santa Claus (otherwise known as the captain). He must have taken time out from his busy day to buy gifts for the crew during our port stay in San Francisco. Though finding these gifts is not the same as opening a wrapped present from under the Christmas tree, his kindness and consideration make for a good start to another Christmas at sea.
On the bridge it’s a quiet holiday mid-watch (2400 to 0400) in the North Pacific. Monitoring the radar and putting a position down every hour, I decide to go out and get an azimuth of Polaris for a compass check. We’re still bucking a heavy swell, but the night is warm — almost tropical. John, the 12-to-4 AB and only other person on the bridge, walks outside with me. He’s a young guy from Los Angeles, and, as we look out at the moonlit ocean, he tells me of his first Christmas at sea two years before on a ship en route to Antarctica. I tell him of my first Christmas at sea in 1983, as a second mate on an oceangoing tug working in the Gulf of Mexico. Then I say, “Well, John, here we are at sea on Christmas day again.” He replies, “You’re right, mate, but somebody’s got to keep Hawaii supplied with gasoline.”
After watch I hit my rack, trying to sleep as the ship’s motion nearly rolls me out of bed. Luckily, I don’t have to get up at 0730 today since there’s no off-watch maintenance work for the deck and engine departments because of the holiday. So after a great six hours of sleep from around 0430 to 1100, I head down to the galley for a cup of coffee — and to check out what’s on the menu for our special Christmas meal! Walking down the passageway, I think to myself what a nice Christmas present it was not working my usual four hours maintenance on deck this morning — and to actually sleep for six hours straight!
It’s 15 minutes before lunch is supposed to start. I walk into the officers’ mess room at the same time the captain, second engineer and chief engineer come in. The tables have fresh linen and holiday decorations, and sumptuous smells waft out from the galley.
Roger, the chief cook, wishes us all a “Merry Christmas!” as he takes fresh pies and hot rolls out of the oven. The other departments may have a holiday routine today, but the three men in the steward’s department have been cooking Christmas dinner since 0400 — after prepping all day yesterday.
True to his Louisiana roots, Roger presents a fantastic holiday meal. We feast on chicken satay, cooked prawns served with cocktail sauce and roast turkey with all the trimmings. Carrying my filled plate and salad bowl over to a table, I sit down across from Jim, the second engineer, an old-timer who started his career nearly 40 years ago. I ask how his Christmas Day is going. He replies, “Being at sea during the holidays always depresses me.” “Why’s that?” I ask. Tears well up in his eyes as he quietly says, “When I think of all the holidays I’ve spent away from my wife and kids, it gets me down. I’ll never be able to get those Christmases back, Kelly, and will always regret it.”
Maybe it’s the second engineer’s comments, or maybe it’s because the weather has turned cloudy and drizzly; but whatever the reason, the wheelhouse feels gloomy during my afternoon (1200 to 1600) watch on the bridge. To cheer myself up, I decide that afterward I’ll head down to the ship’s office and send my wife a Christmas email. Per company policy, only officers are allowed to send personal emails. All of them go to the captain’s inbox first, where they are checked before being sent via satellite. Therefore, my message to my wife is short, but conveys my sentiments. As I hit the send button, the bosun walks by. Ken is a dedicated, hard-working employee, and as he walks down the passageway, I think to myself how great it would be if the company suspended its email policy during the holidays so all crewmembers could send a message to their loved ones — not just the officers.
It is the end of another Christmas day at sea and time for a few hours of sleep before my next mid-watch. I drift off thinking of my dad, who sailed as an AB and bosun and missed many holidays with us as I was growing up. That’s one reason why, 12 years ago, my wife and I decided that since we didn’t have children at home, I would make myself available for relief work during the holidays. This narrative is from one of those trips, where I covered for a mate so he could be home with his young family.
Even a typical Christmas on board, like the one described here, can change in an instant, requiring us to fight a fire, treat an injured crewmember or rescue a man overboard. We professional mariners accept these challenges, knowing that the world relies on the goods and products we bring. It is my sincere hope that while people are giving thanks and counting their blessings this Christmas, they will include the sailors who help make their holidays bountiful.
Till next time, I wish you all Smooth Sailin’.
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at
By Professional Mariner Staff