PUBLISHED: 5:16 PM on Wednesday, May 7, 2008
A community pays homage, bids good luck to fishermen
Five fishing boats circled the waters just off the dock from the Fishermen's Memorial in downtown Juneau. Captains of the Dundas, Mongoose, Helen T, Cape Fox and San Juan piloted their boats along the cenotaph of fishermen lost at sea to be blessed before the start of a new fishing season.

A fisherman aboard the Mongoose dropped a wreath of flowers in Gastineau Channel, where it gently floated away from shore - placed in memory of those who fished the rich bounty of Alaska's perilous waters before them.

Erik Stimpfle photo
Sue Bahleda, pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church, dressed in flowing white vestments, raised her arms to the sky and spoke.

"Eternal father, god of wind storm and sea of all that is above and all that is below, bless and protect the fishing vessel Dundas, her captain and her crew. Give them joy give them protection keep them safe," she prayed.

As boats passed by Bahleda gave each one her blessing, asking for safety for the crew and boat.

Seagulls squawked as they circled the air and a salt water breeze blew gently on the spectators. A small crowd of about 75 people gathered on the waterfront for the annual blessing of the fishing fleet, a communal staple of early May and the start of a new season at sea.

The Stroller White Pipe & Drums Group, dressed in black jackets and kilts, played Amazing Grace. The ancient wail of bagpipes and banging of drums soothed the hearts of those gathered to remember loved ones no longer among us. The Coast Guard cutter Liberty passed by; the crew on deck saluted the crowd as the U.S. flag waved in the wind.

One-by-one the crowd filed down the steps of the Fishermen's Memorial to cast a flower into the ocean, some to wish good luck and others to pay homage to loved ones.

Erik Stimpfle photo
  The U.S. Coast Gaurd cutter "liberty" sails past the Fisherman's Memorial in Juneau during the Blessing of the Fleet held May 2 as well-wishers wave and return salutes.
In Memorian

Frank and Irene Cashen attended the event to remember their son Philip, who lived on his fishing boat in Elfin Cove.

Philip started fishing at age 15 on his uncle's boat, the Totem. He bought the boat when his uncle retired. Philip was a fisherman his whole life until he died at 46. Even though Philip did not perish at sea his name found a permanent home on the wall because he spent his life fishing, and his family wanted to remember him by having his name placed there.

Cathy Munoz took the stage and shared a story first told by her father, Elton Engstrom, about a fisherman named Rick Nelson who perished at sea in 1977. Rick was traveling from Gustavus to Elfin Cove when he encountered rough weather and his boat was sinking.

Rick had only one survival suit on board - along with one passenger - a young woman who was hitching a ride to Elfin Cove. Rick's last act was to give up his lone survival suit to save the woman. Rick died at sea but the young lady survived. Through that one selfless act his legacy has survived for more than 30 years.

Resurrected tradition

Bob Millard, a fisherman who grew up in Juneau, attends the Blessing of the Fleet each year, partly to remember his brother Pat Millard who died while commercial fishing in Yakutat.

Millard recalled that the blessing of the fleet restarted 15 years ago in Juneau. "

When I was a kid the catholic church used to bless fishing boats down in the boat harbor," he said. "We thought that was something that should be resurrected in the community. It was the something the community had lost. Commercial Fishing was the most dangerous industry in the United States. Alaska was losing a lot of fishermen each year. We thought the blessing might fill a need."

After starting the annual Blessing of the Fleet event, the group decided they needed a fishermen's memorial. Bruce Weyhrauch organized a group in 1992 that raised $100,000 and received another $90,000 from the city of Juneau to construct the monument.

"Everybody worked at cost," Millard said of building the memorial. "Nobody made any money building the memorial. It was just a wonderful thing to see the community come together."

Still a dangerous job

The number of deaths in the commercial fishing industry has declined during the past 15 years, partly due to increased awareness and new technology, but the dangers of being an Alaskan fisherman will never go away altogether.

According to statistics from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, there were 12 deaths in 2007 compared to a high of 36 deaths in 1992. One of the reasons for a decline in deaths is that boats are required to carry more safety equipment. In 2004, 96 percent of fisherman survived sinking or capsizing vessels, compared to only 73 percent who survived in 1991.

The fatality rate has decreased by 47 percent since the 1990s, but fishing remains a dangerous job. In 2006 the fatality rate was 36 times greater than the rate of all U.S. workers in other fields.

A daughter's request

This year, only one family made an application to have a name engraved on the Alaska Fishermen's' Memorial. Ronde Winkler traveled to Juneau from California in memory of her father Reuel "Red" Flemming, who died in 1973.

He collapsed on the dock, dying from a heart attack while assisting with docking a fishing boat. Her father came to Juneau in the 1930s to work in the AJ Mine. He purchased "The Tundra," a 42-foot halibut boat in 1952.

Red fished all over Alaska between 1952 and 1973 on various boats. When he bought his boat, he couldn't afford a crew so his crew became his wife and two children.

Ronde was 13-years-old and her brother was 10, who they kept tethered to the boat so he wouldn't fall overboard. The family worked as boat crew for two trips until their father could afford to pay for a crew.

"I had to pilot the boat and I had to do the cooking," Ronde said. "To this day diesel fuel and food are bad smells for me."

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