Wrangell gathers for fleet blessing at nearly finished Mariners’ Memorial

Pastor Sue Bahleda blesses Wrangell’s fleet on behalf of the Wrangell Ministerial Association. (Sage Smiley, KSTK)

As summer fishing seasons gear up and get started, Wrangell community groups gathered at the Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial to wish safety to anyone on the water and remember those who have lost their lives at sea.

A handful of boats bobbed outside the breakwater of Wrangell’s Heritage Harbor on Sunday afternoon, listening by VHF broadcast to the town’s 2021 “Blessing of the Fleet.” To the delight of attendees on foot, the morning’s cloud cover broke just before the start of the ceremony.

“The blessing of the fleet is a tradition that began centuries ago in Mediterranean fishing communities,” began Island of Faith Pastor Sue Bahleda, who delivered remarks representing the Wrangell Ministerial Association. Her blessing concluded: “We bless these crafts and their crews, in their work, in their play, in their days, and their nights. Be safe, be strong, be fruitful, this day and every day.”

While fleet blessings have been a storied tradition of coastal communities for generations, Wrangell hasn’t had a solid, annual tradition. But the Wrangell Ministerial Association and Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial Committee aim to revitalize the event, at a more permanent space for reflection on lives lost at sea — the Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial.

Committee chair Jenn Miller-Yancey says the memorial is in the final stages of construction.

“As you can see, we have fresh concrete poured,” Miller-Yancey announced at the start of the service. “Thank you everyone for being really careful around that. The concrete truck was only available this weekend.”

Wrangell’s Mariners’ Memorial is an idea that’s been in the works for decades but was formally brought to the city’s port commission in 2012. Five years later and after many discussions, a group of Wrangellites formed the Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial Committee and got the group nonprofit status.

After deciding on a design, the group broke ground on the Mariners’ Memorial in late 2018. Over the last year, the site has really taken shape, with the construction of a hexagonal lighthouse pavilion with an 800-pound compass rose in its center and sweeping, boat-shaped iron walls which will hold the names of Wrangell mariners who have passed on.

Some of the first names to grace the memorial will be those of Helen and Sig Decker. The 19- and 21-year old Wrangell sister and brother died along with two of their fishing crewmates in a car crash on Mitkof Island last year. Some of the funds raised in the siblings’ memory were donated to help complete construction of the Mariners’ Memorial.

To wrap up this year’s fleet blessing, Wrangell middle-schooler Madelyn Davies read the poem “If you’ve Ever Lived On an Island” by J. Earnhart. 

Here are the last two stanzas:

Attendees at the 2021 ‘Blessing of the Fleet’ (Sage Smiley / KSTK)

“If ever you’ve heard the seagulls
the waves, a foghorn, the winds;
Then you’ve heard the song of the island
and the peaceful message it sends.

Indeed, if you live on an island
if you’re lucky to live by the sea
You’ll never return to the mainland,
as your spirit has been set free.”

One of the assembled boats responded with a honk of thanks as land-based well-wishers milled about, chatting and enjoying local cookies and donuts.

The Mariners’ Memorial Committee hopes to raise up to $25,000 to complete the current phase of construction: finishing the memorial walls and starting to add memorial plaques. After that, it’ll be on to landscaping the site.

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