Christmas at Sea

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Christmas ashore is a jolly time of fun and festivities where families and friends get together to eat and drink and exchange gifts. But having a number of salty Yuletides under my belt I know it can be a poignant time for seafarers and their loved ones.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Christmas at Sea’, although perhaps a little OTT in terms of Victorian sentimentality, brings home the sadness of separation at this time.

Christmas at Sea

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seamen scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ’twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
“All hands to loose topgallant sails,” I heard the captain call.
“By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,” our first mate Jackson, cried.
…”It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,” he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

But I have warm memories of my Christmases at sea. Captains, whenever operations permitted, went out of their way to both honour the spiritual elements of this time of year and make sure there was some relaxation of normal work and discipline.

I remember the traditional fun and games. In the Royal Navy (and a number of others) it has long been a tradition to change roles, the youngest crew member finding himself ‘captain’ and fining the real commanding officer a bottle of rum or some such for an ‘indiscretion’. This dates well back to pagan times when, during certain festivals, masters would wait on the slaves, who in turn assumed their lordly roles.

Up to the introduction of modern victualling methods individual messes provided their own Christmas fare. On Christmas morning the mess tables would be groaning with edible luxuries. The captain, accompanied by his officers and preceded by the ship’s band, made a customary tour around the mess decks. Stopping briefly at each mess, he exchanged the compliments of the season and partook of various delicacies from proffered plates, which was sacrilege to pass without due recognition.

One wit describing such an event wrote: ‘A captain would require the digestion of an ostrich and the capacity of an elephant if he even sampled all that he feels it incumbent on him to accept. Yet it all disappears to some mysterious place known only to a captain – and perhaps his coxswain.’

Before rum was abolished in the Royal Navy in 1970, several months before Christmas a much-loved ceremony occurred as each ship made a giant batch of Christmas pudding mixture. Supervised by the ship’s cooks,the captain and crew added a goodly amount of rum to the mix, which was stirred with a wooden paddle.

The merchant service also holds this time of the year special. In 1928 the purser of ‘Garthpool’ wrote a warming account of the passing of Christmas on one of the last voyages ever made to the Antipodes by a British square-rigger:-

‘At midnight, preceded by a boy with a lanthorn, Father Christmas called at every cabin with carols and presents. He then went forrard with gifts for the crew and Christmas peace settled over the dark ship. Christmas Day was honoured with carefully shaved faces, neat ties and white shirts. There was festive yarning, Christmas toasts and a game of deck quoits preceded the Christmas dinner which included soup, tongue, plum duff and brandy sauce, cheese, nuts, sweets along with paper hats and crackers.’

One of Tom Kydd’s special memories of Christmas is of one spent ashore in the Philippines [ARTEMIS].
Do you have special memories of a Christmas at sea? Do share them.


Copyright notices
Stevenson image: By Rls-pc1.jpg: Knox Series derivative work: Beao (Rls-pc1.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

23 Comments on “Christmas at Sea

  1. 3rd Mate in the Merchant out in the N Atlantic this very moment, due home in February. Very poignant poem, think ill save it somewhere:) Merry Christmas to all! (Having a kindle full of the Kydd series is a definite perk :D)

  2. Pingback: Heave Ho for the Festive Season! | Julian Stockwin

  3. Just wondering where North Head and South Head are as mentioned in “Christmas at Sea”
    Patrick Kavanagh
    Elder Member of The Molgoggers sea shanty group based in Cobh Co. Cork Ireland

    • Never really thought about it but it’s clear this is essentially a generic scene of a vessel dangerously embayed – I think in the outer isles of the Hebrides of Scotland which Stevenson would know intimately from his youth. By the way there are many North and South Heads around the world…

  4. Hi Big Jules , Happy New Year to you from NZ and hope those storms i here in southern UK are not too severe. A question sir, if i may on etiquette on board ship in Nelsonian times. Having read a lot of those times by various authors including yourself,i have come across two actions if you are able to explain , ” Knuckling the forehead ” and ” showing a leg ” would be interested in your comments Regards Wally Bennett

    • And Happy New Year to you, Wally. The storms over here are still pretty serious in many parts of the UK, some saying there’s been nothing like them in living memory! Thanks for the questions, I’ll address them in a future blog.

  5. Dear ‘BigJules’.
    I spent several X-masses at sea in my Navy years or time spent with the R. Neth. Marines. One was very remakable. I served on the old destroyer Utrecht and, it was in the height of the Cold war, we had to shadow a few Russian ships going through the North sea and on to where ever. A RN destroyer or frigate would relieve us, from Lands End or there about, so we could spent our X-mass in home waters. But the RN ship coul not sail, due to a ??, we never heard what, actually. That was on dec. 23. We had to shadow the Ruskies al the way to Gib, before we were relieved. Off course we did not have enough supplies to have a Christmas diner, so we had to make due with Corned beef, onions and ‘Sambal’, a hot spice you probably know. In our Navy that dish is knonw as “Fried Marine”. To have it once a week is ok, to eat it twice a week, ca va, but to have it four days in a row? Happily our RN relief send us bij way of RAS, fresh eggs and oranges and we handed over a few bottles of Oude Jenever to her! We returned on december 31. Just in time for a drink to celebrate.

  6. My first holiday at sea, or under the sea, was on a nuclear fast attack submarine ordered to sail on Christmas eve. As one of two honorary Christians on the crew, I thought it my duty to smuggle aboard a tree with lights, which I hid in the radio room until we sailed. It was a festive night even though we didn’t return to port for many months. This was decades before you introduced us to Thomas Kydd, who would have been a wonderful sailing companion.

    Happy Holidays to all.

    Len Sandler

  7. We wish you, Kathy and your team a happy Christmas and all the best for 2014. Have really enjoyed reading your fine books this year and eagerly await your next. Will be drinking a toast, on board our boat Amarelle, to you and all seafarers on Christmas Day.

  8. Merry Christmas Jules…….I’ll bet Stevenson’s poem is written as the ship maneuvers near Grand Manan Island, NB, Canada. Had an exciting entry to that Island a few years back during a storm…called customs on VHF and daughter said “Dad is out picking strawberrys in the rain!” When is your next book?

  9. Raises the hairs on the back of my head – and further on, brings memories to the fore.

    A hearty Christmas to all

  10. To you and Kathy, an extremely happy, peaceful and blessed Christmas and 2014. Keep Kydd safe and well and give ALL members of your staff a “bumper” on me. …………………………………………Oh wait I have sent this with out putting the cheque in the post !!! Oh well at least my thought was good.
    Sincerely yours
    George T Moore.

  11. At sea on station off North Vietnam in 1966. We hit our bunks Christmas eve and were quite surprised to find presents surrounding us when we awoke. Seems the CO had orchestrated the wives/girlfriends at home to send presents via him. He must have enjoyed being St. Nick. The next day we were flying over the north again but with lighter hearts. Unfortunately no libations in the USN but we always had a big feast. john

  12. I served as Apprentice and Navigating Officer with Ellerman’s, coming ashore in 1963. I remember one Christmas when I was Third Mate, the ‘Old Man’ relieved me to go down to the Lounge for a sherry with our passengers.
    The line “And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye” strikes a chord, I am a volunteer watchkeeper with the National Coastwatch Institution, Swanage Station, and Christmas Day is the one day in the year when our lookout is not manned – mariners be warned!
    A Happy Christmas to you Jules – and to all your characters, and also to all your loyal readers.

  13. I love your books. I live them as though they were real . I used to be at sea in 1966 with Shell

    happy Christmas I .m looking forward to reading your new book. J.l.Riley

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