ABOARD THE JUPITER - About 3,000 merchant seamen are spending at least part of the holiday season in the Philadelphia region for an unassailable reason.

They have no choice.

So on a morning when a stinging December wind agitated waters that were alternately dreary and shimmering, the Rev. James Von Dreele knew that he and his cohorts aboard the tugboat Jupiter would be more-than-welcome sights to the crew of the Norwegian tanker BW Challenger.

And he had no illusions that it had anything to do with personal charms or even the Christmas packages - containing pencils, air-mail envelopes and hand-knitted hats - they were delivering by rope to the chemical carrier, moored on the Schuylkill near the Delaware River junction.

"They're really happy to see us," said Von Dreele, "We're fresh faces."

Von Dreele, an Episcopal priest, is director of the Seamen's Church Institute, which could be described as the church of the homesick sailor.

Yesterday, he and about 30 others were on the stocking-bedecked Jupiter, a Christmas tree atop the wheelhouse, bearing gifts courtesy of the institute, the Independence Seaport Museum and the Ship Preservation Guild of Philadelphia.

The grateful recipients were 75 sailors

aboard the Challenger and two ships in the Delaware: an oil tanker docked at Philadelphia, and a fruit ship at Gloucester City.

The 20 Filipinos and three Norwegians aboard the Challenger had arrived here Monday from the Bahamas, where it was about 40 degrees toastier.

The nondenominational institute, which has 750 chapters worldwide, has been delivering Christmas gifts to ship-bound seamen for more than 100 years, Von Dreele said.

While the Jupiter made deliveries to a select few, most of the sailors assigned to ships in the 33 terminals from Marcus Hook to Fairless Hills will be getting their gifts via vans onshore.

Odds are that Philadelphia is not a seaman's first choice of holiday venue, said the Preservation Guild's Jesse Lebovics, the Jupiter's operations chief. A quick survey revealed that the words

Delaware

and

Schuylkill

don't appear in any popular holiday songs.

"A lot of these people are at sea because they have to be, to feed their families," said Lebovics, a board member of the Preservation Guild, which operates the Jupiter, one of the nation's oldest tugs.

Today, about 22 percent of merchant seaman are from the Philippines, according to the Seafarers' International Research Center, based in Wales, triple the number of any other nationality.

Advances in container unloading have made a seaman's life lonelier and tougher, said Lebovics. Ships are spending less time in port, and that limits the time crews can spend in port towns.

Security concerns are another limiting factor, and they once even affected the Jupiter's Christmas tour, at least indirectly. In 2006, the second year of the tugboat tradition, the Jupiter had a Coast Guard escort as it approached a vessel with foreign nationals aboard.

As the Jupiter got closer, the ship's crew hustled away from the railings and appeared to scurry for cover.

Said Von Dreele: "They thought they were being trapped."

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.