Volunteers at a Seamen’s Church Institute Christmas at Sea packing event in Baton Rouge, La. (Photo by Frank McCormack)

SCI Celebrates 125 Years Of Christmas At Sea Program

On a chilly December evening in Baton Rouge, La., around 20 people gathered in the fellowship hall of Ingleside United Methodist Church to pack hundreds of boxes with knitted hats, scarves and gators, along with notes of encouragement, and share a pot of homemade gumbo.

Leading the packing event—and the gumbo chef—was the Rev. Tom Rhoades, senior chaplain with the Ministry on the River program of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI). The event was part of SCI’s Christmas at Sea campaign, now in its 125th year, which gives knitted items to seafarers and inland mariners who work through the holiday season. Launched in 1898, Christmas at Sea is considered the oldest and longest continuously running charter knitting program in the United States.

For international seafarers, the primary distribution point is SCI’s International Seafarers’ Center at Port Newark, N.J. For SCI’s ministry to mariners who work on the nation’s inland and coastal waterways, chaplains coordinate packing and distribution efforts anywhere from Pittsburgh, Pa., and Paducah, Ky., south to New Orleans and Houston, and many places in between.

No matter the waterway, type of vessel, or flag state, the mission and vision of Christmas at Sea remains the same: to let seafarers and mariners know they’re loved and appreciated, even as they’re on duty during the holidays.

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“We realize we cannot send seafarers and mariners home for Christmas, but what we can do is make them feel at home,” said Joanne Bartosik, senior manager of Christmas at Sea. “That’s what I think the essence of Christmas at Sea is.”

Rhoades said the holidays can be a difficult time for seafarers and mariners, who are missing out on traditions and family gatherings back home.

“Being away from home on Christmas Day can make it a very lonely day, especially for new mariners who have not been away from their families before,” he said.

But the gift of knitted and crocheted items on Christmas has another purpose that Rhoades said he hopes lasts far beyond the holiday season. Christmas at Sea also serves as a way to familiarize seafarers and mariners with the pastoral and trauma care ministry SCI’s chaplains offer year-round.

“Christmas at Sea is an important gateway onto the vessels for chaplains,” Rhoades said. “When you walk onto a boat, that’s someone’s home and you really need to be invited. Christmas at Sea makes us able to get more quickly into a relationship of discovery and exploration and listening, and when we leave, the mariners are glad we were there, and they look forward to us coming back. It’s also a great way to get companies connected to SCI for the first time.”

The Baton Rouge team, which met December 11, packed about 2,700 knitted items into around 500 boxes. Those 500 boxes will be delivered to 500 vessels in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas leading up to Christmas Day. Other Ministry on the River packing locations this year include Paducah, Ky., Houma, La., Houston, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. In all, the Ministry on the River program’s 2023 Christmas at Sea effort will account for more than 10,000 knits.

And that’s just the knits bound for inland vessels. SCI gives away that many or more to seafarers at the ports of New York and New Jersey. Knitters work year-round to create beanies, scarves and gators for seafarers and inland mariners. Sorting, packing and distributing those items also takes an army, with chaplains and chaplain associates joining forces with volunteers.

“For the five years I’ve been involved with Christmas at Sea, it has grown tremendously,” Bartosik said. “When I first started, we were processing approximately 16,000 donations a year. We’re up to 28,000 donations a year.”

Bartosik said in 2022 alone, SCI saw close to 1,000 individual volunteers and 127 groups take part in the Christmas at Sea campaign. In 2023, Bartosik expects close to 10,000 knitted or crocheted items to be distributed through Port Newark. Those items will be packed in what SCI calls “ditty bags,” with each bag containing one hat (or beanie) and one scarf, plus some toiletries and nonperishable food items. For Christmas at Sea on the river system, SCI is distributing more than 11,853 knitted and crocheted items from 10 distribution centers.

“There are a lot of moving pieces to this,” she said, “and it’s all year round.”

And all those knitted and crocheted items aren’t just bought on Amazon. Each one is handmade by individuals that SCI collectively calls its Christmas at Sea Angels, “an international group of experienced knitters and crocheters who are familiar with our patterns.”

Knitted and crocheted items may be sent to SCI year-round. Patterns, guidelines, where to send knitted items and a list of helpful frequently asked questions are all available online at www.seamenschurch.org/christmas-at-sea.

Caption for photo: Volunteers at a Seamen’s Church Institute Christmas at Sea packing event in Baton Rouge, La. (Photo by Frank McCormack)