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How does one celebrate Christmas at sea? What’s the mood like? What are the rituals and traditions? And what is – and isn’t – allowed? We asked these questions to Arnold Lipinski, Senior Director Marine Fleet Personnel in Hamburg, who himself spent many Christmas Eves on board a ship when he was still a seafarer.
How many seafarers on board Hapag-Lloyd ships have to work during the holidays?
On just the 121 company-owned ships, we’re talking about nearly 3,000 crew members, officers and ratings. And if we look at the entire fleet – that is, at the roughly 215 ships sailing for Hapag-Lloyd – we’re talking about more crew members.
How is it decided who has to stay on board at this time?
Our duty rosters are made as well in advance as possible, and Christmas doesn’t really play any role in it. But we do try to take people’s wishes into account, such as if a seafarer wants to be back home after several Christmases at sea. In such a case, it would definitely also play a role if he has children. All of this is sometimes really not so easy to organize. But our seafarers are very understanding about the fact that someone has to be steering the ship at this time, too. It’s a matter of honor that no one fakes having some kind of “tinsel disease”, as ailments suddenly developing before the celebration are called among german seafarers. Furthermore, we try to avoid having a crew change at Christmas – because then two parties haven’t been able to celebrate much
Are there fixed rituals on board a ship?
No, but there are a lot of things in common. People also have to work on Christmas Eve, usually until about noon. And, of course, the watch is manned around the clock, as always. Then, in the afternoon or evening, the captain gathers the whole team and makes a speech. The Christmas emails sent on board by the Executive Board and Ship Management are often also read aloud. The cook works hard to serve a special meal. Naturally, there are also gifts, too – for example, the present from Hapag-Lloyd for our crew members from the Philippines. Sometimes you also have singing later, as well, including Christmas songs in the various languages – or karaoke.
What’s the mood like?
Very contemplative and a bit festive, too. People also dress somewhat nicely. But, to tell you the truth, most are just sad to not be at home. I can relate to that well myself, as I was at sea for Christmas about a dozen times. And opening presents alone in your cabin is never the same as at home with the family. Especially for the Filipinos, but also for the Poles among our crew members, Christmas is even more important than it is in Germany.
Is it possible for families to contact crew members?
Yes, a lot has changed with that. I still remember the days when wives could greet their husbands via “Radio Norddeich” – and the whole world could listen in. Back then, one minute on a satellite telephone cost 27 marks, but today it only costs pennies. That’s why many people speak on the phone with their loved ones back home on Christmas even when they are on the high seas. In addition, everyone on board is allowed to go online every day and can do things like read messages on their private email accounts or be on Facebook, even if there are certain restrictions related to attachments and downloads. These days, almost everybody also uses their own cellphone when they’re in port or near coasts.
Are there Christmas trees on the ships?
Yes. They’re usually ordered far in advance and then come on board at the right time. And, naturally, they’re real trees instead of plastic ones – even if they don’t have any candles, which are categorically forbidden on board for safety reasons.
Can you enjoy a glass of wine on Christmas Eve?
The same rules are in force then as on every other day. For those on watch, the zero-alcohol limit applies. Whoever is off-duty can drink one or two glasses – but he basically has to be fit for duty at all times so as to be able to assume his position in case of emergency.
Are celebrations held in port, too, or just at sea?
It can sometimes happen that the time for exchanging gifts is shifted by a few hours or a day because of a port call, but that’s the exception. But when there is engine damage – which, thank God, is rather rare – the work has to continue without stop even on Christmas Eve. I can say that from my own personal experience.
And what happens on New Year’s Eve?
For most, that day is much less important than Christmas. Of course, some people gather on the bridge before the Tyfon (ship horn) blares at midnight. But that’s in the middle of the night, and a normal workday awaits on the next day...