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Chaplains Dan Phannenhour and Ronda Ploughman of the Mission to Seafarers approach the Cinnamon, a Cypriot ship, while carrying Christmas boxes to deliver to the ship's Ukrainian crew docked in Hamilton, Ontario on Tuesday, December 20, 2016.Peter Power

His father-in-law takes care of the peach orchard when Evgeniy Veadychenko is away at sea. There are hundreds of trees and many kinds of peaches in the orchard, and sometimes Evgeniy is away for half the year, so the old man gets plenty of work.

Evgeniy has just two children – many fewer than he has peach trees – but they are even more work. His son is a toddler and enjoys causing havoc. Evgeniy calls him the "human atom bomb."

"Difficult," he says. "But I love."

Their home is near Odessa, a big city with a zoo where his son learned not to be afraid of elephants. Today, the Ukrainian sailor is about 8,000 kilometres away in Hamilton. He has been aboard a bulk carrier called the Andean for seven months, and this week the ship is docked in the Southern Ontario city while it delivers a load of steel.

Evgeniy is flipping through Facebook pictures of his children in the Mission to Seafarers here, a clubhouse and chapel for visiting sailors. Two staff and four volunteers spend the year helping seamen run errands, manage labour disputes, connect with their families and occasionally even pray. Around Christmas, bitter weather and sailors anxious to get home for the holidays make the work all the more vital.

Evgeniy celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, in accordance with his Orthodox faith, but Dec. 25 has another meaning for him. It's his daughter's birthday. She's turning six this year. The Andean will probably be in Duluth, Minn., when she blows out the candles.

"My whole world is 17 men," he says.

Thousands of homesick and seasick sailors call at Hamilton every year aboard some 700 ships, both lakers and the ocean-going vessels known as "salties" in the freshwater harbours of the world. Within 12 hours of a ship's arrival in Hamilton, Mission to Seafarers workers will go aboard with a bag of chocolates and the long-distance calling cards that are always in demand amid the chronic isolation of a mariner's life.

The organization is run affiliated with the Anglican Church and has chapters in about 50 countries, but the work of the Hamilton chapter is relentlessly local. Sometimes, a ship will stay in Hamilton for as long as two weeks, unloading steel and loading grain. In that span, staffers Dan Phannenhour, Ronda Ploughman and Janice Maloney-Brooks will serve as all-purpose helpmeets to the crew.

Seafarers don't ask for much, said Mr. Phannenhour, a Lutheran pastor. "They want to go to Niagara Falls, they want to go to Walmart – those are the two big things."

There isn't as much call for strong rum and fast women in today's seaports as there might once have been. Modern sailors are often upwardly mobile, middle-class family men from relatively poor countries, such as the Philippines and Ukraine; once on dry land, they're likelier to gravitate toward the nearest WiFi hot spot than to the local tavern.

Judith Alltree, executive director of the Mission to Seafarers Southern Ontario (comprising Oshawa, Toronto and Hamilton), remembers one Ukrainian sailor who was intent on buying a Canadian diamond ring for his girlfriend, because Canadian diamonds were more ethically sourced than African ones. Such are the rather staid, bourgeois preoccupations of the 21st-century seafarer.

Some missions are elaborate. The facility in Sorel, Que., has a bar. Houston's boasts a basketball court and a pool.

In Hamilton, the facilities are humbler. Sailors are usually content with creature comforts and a way of calling home, so the mission obliges with WiFi passwords and chocolate bars. A pool table (favoured by Filipino sailors) and a foosball table (popular with Eastern Europeans) provide sober diversion.

The mission's work bends around the customs of the floating United Nations that is the world's commercial seafaring corps. Sailors on Dutch ships need to be driven around less because they usually have bikes on board. Mr. Phannenhour has more trouble meeting Indian crews because they insist on treating him as an "honoured guest" and serving him food in the officers' mess. And since about 40 per cent of the world's 1.7 million seafarers are Filipino, the Toronto mission has a cupboard full of Tagalog Bibles.

Still, whatever their customs, all sailors are alike in suffering the deprivations of life at sea. Atlantic crossings this year were especially rough. One captain recently told the mission that his crew had gone nine days without sleep or hot meals because of choppy seas. Pair that with voyages that can last almost a year and routinely surpass six months, often on contracts that are unilaterally extended, and sailors rejoice at the sight of land.

"It's a hard, dangerous career," Ms. Alltree said. "They don't see their family for months on end. They put themselves in harm's way to feed their families and to make sure we can have cheap clothing [and] we can drink coffee from Brazil."

Sailors are often uncannily upbeat despite these hardships and more generous than they can afford to be. "You can't out-give a seafarer," Mr. Phannenhour said, who once repaid for his assistance with a dinner of curried lamb. One ship's cook made a cake for Ms. Maloney-Brooks.

That warmth and resilience has been on display in recent weeks aboard the Ardita, a cargo ship that has been detained in Hamilton since April because of an ownership dispute. Most of the crew have been sent home, but a few Filipino sailors were still on board last week.

They have only visited shore a handful of times since spring, but with Christmas on the horizon, their spirits seem to have been buoyed. After the season's first big snowfall, they built a snowman on the Ardita's deck and posed for selfies with it. They are expected to be flown home for Christmas, as most crews are this time of year.

Evgeniy and his colleagues aboard the Andean seem likely to prove an exception. He doesn't think he'll make it home for Jan. 7. The ship still has to traverse a series of tricky locks through the Great Lakes en route to Duluth. While passing through the locks, the crew works through the night, with two-hour intervals of sleep.

"It's like you're a machine, but a broken machine," Evgeniy says with a tired laugh.

On Christmas, he usually goes to church with his family. He is a pious man.

"My nationality is Christian," he says. "I was born in one country, now live in another country, maybe I die in another country. All the time, God stay one."

Last week, Ms. Alltree gave Evgeniy a box of good English chocolate in the Hamilton mission. Wearing an anchor-shaped crucifix, she said, "Merry Christmas."

Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission served 3,000 people in the Downtown Eastside a hearty meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and all the traditional sides. That's an epic undertaking the mission has delivered for 76 years.