Skip to main content

Chaplain Nick Parker delivers gifts to crew members aboard ships anchored in Vancouver's outer harbour on Christmas Eve.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The men peer over the rail of the freighters – five and six storeys above the water anchored in English Bay – that they've called home for months.

Some are perplexed when they see the small water taxi sidling below them, its horn bellowing, a spindly Christmas tree lashed to a pole next to the radar, heaped with coloured parcels bundled in clear-plastic garbage bags. Others break into smiles, as they recognize instantly what's happening.

The Christmas spirit, in the form of three floater-coat-wearing chaplains, led by Vancouver's senior port chaplain, Nick Parker, has arrived at their ship against all odds.

It's a fresh, unique Vancouver ritual that began four years ago.

That's when the new owner of the Tymac Launch Service offered Mr. Parker a boat and crew for a Christmas Eve delivery to the freighters stuck isolated in the harbour while the port shuts down for two days during the holidays.

This Christmas Eve, Mr. Parker is accompanied, as usual, by Roman Catholic chaplain John Eason and Christian Reformed Church chaplain Ernest de Vries for the five-hour expedition to the ships floating in the middle of the city's postcard setting: snow-capped mountains, downtown towers shrouded in mist, lights glimmering from the houses high up the North Shore slopes.

Even if Christmas isn't part of their tradition, the crews from the 19 ships here are startled and thrilled with the unexpected visit.

"Thank you, thank you very much. Merry Christmas," yelled Mohammed Halim, as he clambers down the gangway from the Wadi Alkarnak, out of Alexandria and now anchored in front of Spanish Banks, clutching the rope railings of the gangway to pick up one of the three bags that will go up for the 22 crew members on board.

Jiu Shi Ma, a spiky-haired young man in a jazz-patterned, black-and-white sweater, called out the same as he helps pass up the bags for his crew mates on the Spring Progress, registered in Panama, but just arrived from China, he says.

And Daniel Parzal, who hasn't seen his home country of Poland for two months, beams as the bags – filled with shampoo, tuques, scarves, calculators, chocolates and more – arrive on the deck of the Patagonia.

"They're the forgotten few," said Mr. Parker, a one-time Canadian naval officer who became an Anglican minister in the 1980s and was appointed the senior port chaplain for Vancouver in 2007.

Until 2009, Mr. Parker and his fellow chaplains had been carrying out a Vancouver tradition started in 1970 by the Christian Reformed Church – delivering Christmas gifts to crews of freighters that were tied up at terminals in Burrard Inlet or Roberts Bank in the days before and after Christmas. Parishioners from the three denominations collect $15,000 to $20,000 in gifts and money each year, with teams of women from the churches putting in hours to pack the bags.

"But we wanted to expand what we do dockside," said Mr. Parker, who runs the Mission to Seafarers out of the Flying Angels Club house at the foot of Main Street in Vancouver.

He tried to persuade the then-owners of Tymac, a company that provides water-taxi, piloting and service calls for the port's freighters, to supply a boat. But it was a lot for a small company to take on, with the requirement for insurance and two crew.

When Tymac was acquired by a larger company, Tidal Transport, the new president, Ron Brinkhurst, told him, "I'd like to right a wrong."

The first year, the chaplains delivered in a snowstorm. The next year, the waters were so rough that some bags had to be carried up on a rope ladder because the gangways couldn't be lowered. The year after, it poured rain.

But this year, with Tymac skipper Struan Richardson manoeuvring the water taxi up to the towering freighters, it was a beautiful day.

Some crews hung on to the visiting chaplains as long as they could, showing off the whole pig they were roasting or their somewhat mangy fake Christmas trees. On the Unique Brilliance, Mr. Parker is asked to stay and bless the bridge.

As the taxi sped away from the last ship, the Catalina, a man in an orange jumpsuit dropped the two bags he'd carried up, pressed his two palms together in prayer, and bowed toward the departing Christmas visitors.