A SOUTHAMPTON based chaplain dubbed the "Santa of the sea" has been honoured for his half-century of service.

Rev Bill McCrea has played "Santa" to seafarers for decades – but this year the Sailors' Society wants to give him something back.

The society is a global maritime charity based in Woolston and will be holding a special celebration on January 13 to mark Bill’s 50 years of service.

The chaplain visits seafarers every week in Southampton port despite retiring as a Sailors’ Society chaplain 14-years ago.

Many seafarers will be working away from their families at Christmas, so Bill and the rest of the Southampton and Fawley chaplaincy team have given out more than 1,400 Christmas presents this year, including woolly hats, puzzles and sweets, to show them they are appreciated.

Bill said: “I love the work. I believe you have to have a calling to it and, as I say every week when I go on the ships with my volunteers, every ship visit is different – no two are the same.

“Sometimes the crew have grown up in the job and will remember you years later. Just recently, I met a captain on one of my visits who recognised me from his days as a cadet.”

Before his retirement, Bill served as a chaplain for 37 years in London, Kent, Belfast, Jamaica, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Houston and Southampton.

He has met more than 500,000 seafarers over the years, offering a "warm welcome", a tune on his harmonica and practical support – from a listening ear to a lift to the seafarer centre or visiting them in hospital when they are ill.

Over the years he has experienced great joy, but also tremendous tragedies.

Bill provided support when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized moments after leaving Zeebrugge port in Belgium, bound for Dover with193 lives lost.

Bill took the funerals of four crew members and cared for their families in the aftermath of the disaster.

Bill added: "I tremble every time I think of some of those situations.

“It was a terrible time for Dover and I don’t think the city has ever fully recovered.”

Despite the "hard times", Bill’s commitment to the maritime industry hasn’t wavered and it saw him awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for his services as Chaplain to the Sea Cadets in 2003. He was also awarded the Merchant Navy Medal in 2010 for his services to retired seafarers.