By Patrick Byrne | BBC News, East of England
On and off-shore of East Anglia’s ports hundreds of seafarers will not be able to spend Christmas with their families.
Many of the sailors have faced hardship in cramped quarters, perils of weather and the threat of pirate attacks.
Pirates prowl the waters off the coast of West Africa through which many English seafarers have come and gone.
Agencies will be working to support the sailors this Christmas including the Catholic Apostleship of the Sea, whose chaplain will be carrying out visits.
Sister Marian Davey, who is the chaplain for the East Coast ports, is among those who have helped deal with sailors who fled attacks by pirates off Somalia.
She said: “Sadly, we can no longer think of piracy as just part of maritime mythology or seafarers tales.
“It’s a reality for many seafarers on ships today.”
She said that earlier this year she spent some time with a crew in Felixstowe whose ship had been threatened by pirates.
Sister Davey added: “One pirate attempted to climb onboard, but fell off, as the captain manoeuvred the ship, causing him to lose his grip.
“Meanwhile a speedboat full of pirates with a lot of weapons was ready to fire at the ship. In this case, it ended well, as the ship was able to speed away out of reach of their guns.
“When the ship arrived in Felixstowe three weeks later quite a few of the Filipino crew were still recovering. But they said they had no choice but to get on with the next stage of the voyage to earn a living wage to support their families back home.”
Ports like Tilbury and Harwich in Essex, Felixstowe, Ipswich and Lowestoft in Suffolk, and Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, deal with the trading ships.
While much of England enjoys a festive holiday break, busy container ports like Tilbury, Harwich and Felixstowe will continue working over Christmas.
Crews represent a wide range of nations and hold an equally varied number of religious beliefs. However, most regard Christmas as a universal feast with its focus on the family.
But for seafarers Christmas can be a lonely time, hundreds or thousands of miles from their families.
For Sister Davey, it means visiting the various ports in her patch, taking some small gifts donated by local churches, including warm clothing.
She also provides seafarers with telephone top-ups so they can use the internet to contact their families back home.
Many of the Filipino seafarers gather onboard for a special meal on Christmas Eve.
“It’s a way of staying connected to the tradition where the whole family gathers to celebrate and give thanks,” Sister Davey said.
“I will try to join a few of these meals, but I am also busy responding to requests for taking seafarers to services or to celebrate a service onboard.”
She said the meal was usually followed by a karaoke carol session and often a visit from Santa.
The captain of a small barge with three Filipinos onboard has asked her to provide some small gifts and calendars for the crew when they arrive in Harwich a few days after Christmas.
“Many of the seafarers in the East Anglian ports are from Russia, Ukraine and Romania, so I visit ships in early January with some small snacks of Eastern European food for the crews to celebrate their Christmas on 6 January.”
Last month the Swanland, a cargo ship carrying rocks, sank 10 miles off the coast of Wales after a huge wave cracked its hull. One member of the Russian crew died and five are still missing.
Sister Davey had been on board the Swanland earlier this year. She had also driven some of the crew to the seafarers’ centre in the port, so that they could use the internet and phone their families back home.
“The crew was a little bit frosty at first, but this is common with Russian seafarers. When I gave them some news bulletins in Russian, they were very grateful,” she said.
Over Christmas Sr Davey will be praying for a safe passage through piracy waters for the seafarers as they make their return trips.