At least 100 people gathered around the Alaska Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial in Juneau, which is curved like the bow of a ship, to wave at vessels in the harbor and to wish them well on the day that marks the official start of the fishing season.
The well-wishers threw roses into the channel and bowed their heads in prayer as the rain fell and bagpipes bellowed from the pier.
“I’m asking protection for my men, but also for all the fishermen in this community,” said Kristie Becker Germain, 32, the namesake of her father’s gillnetter, Kristine.
Juneau is the 42nd largest fishing port in the U.S. by volume, and as Gov. Sean Parnell remarked early Saturday morning, we all have close ties to the sea.
“Our fishermen and women, deckhands, ferry workers, pilots, sailors, and mariners of all kinds,” Parnell said.
The Blessing of the Fleet isn’t solely about praying for safety and prosperity for the 390 CFEC commercial fishing permit holders in Juneau. It’s also to commemorate the fishermen and women who have died, and whose names are etched on the memorial wall. Those who were lost at sea have a star next to their name.
“A lot of my friends are on the wall down here,” said Jev Shelton, a 70-year-old commercial fisherman who is still at it after more than 40 years in the industry. “This is an annual stop of mine.”
Walter Bennett Sr., 64, who retired after fishing commercially for 32 years, came to the ceremony with his 7-year-old daughter to remember his father, longtime fisherman Joe Bennett, who died in 2002, and his uncle Ronald John.
“We come every year,” Bennett said, holding his daughter’s hand. “I just feel like I’m close to my dad and my friends.”
Juneau has hosted the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony for 20 years since 1992. It used to be held downtown at the old ferry terminal, and now takes place at the Fisherman’s Memorial in front of the Twisted Fish restaurant, next to the Mount Roberts Tramway.
For Melissa Museth, the memorial is where she can remember her father and stepfather, whose names are both on the wall. Her father died at home in 1989, and her stepfather on a boat as it was headed back into town in 2003.
“For me, this is place to go since the ashes were scattered at sea for both my relatives,” she said. “It’s a place to go — it’s their tombstone, basically, because they don’t have one.”
Museth added, “For those who have lost their loved ones at sea, this is where they can make the connection with their loved ones because they never got a body back to bury.”
Sarah Selvig, along with her three children and other family members, came to remember her father, Rodney Selvig, who died in 2009, and her boyfriend’s grandfather, Paul Ecklund, who died in 1961.
“He was born in South Dakota but he moved here at 19 and fished here ever since,” Selvig said of her father. She said her dad was a power troller and a long liner.
His vessel was named the AB&G, which the original owner named after his daughter’s.
“But my dad called it All Balls & Guts,” Selvig said, laughing.
As chance would have it, when Selvig was having dinner with the man who would later become her boyfriend, she saw a painting of the AB&G on a desk in his family’s house. It turned out that both their fathers had owned it at one point.
“I’m like, ‘Does that boat have any significance to you guys?’ because it had a painting of the AB&G. And they were like, ‘Yeah, that was my dad’s boat.’ I’m like, ‘That’s my dad’s boat!’”
The boat now belongs to a fisherman or woman in Hoonah, she said. Selvig said they sold all the commercial gear and now she and her family sport fish.
Holding her hand out to the rain, Paul Ecklund’s daughter Pauline Baker said the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony was “emotional, and with weather like this ...”
Fifteen vessels bobbed in the water this year to receive the blessing. The fishing vessel Kaia’s Capt. Randy Beason dropped a ceremonial wreath into the water to commemorate those lost.
Dylan Davis and Pastor Sam Dalin of River of Glory Church read the 181 names that are engraved on the Memorial’s wall.
Five more names were added this year, that of Shea Hunter Walling, Bob Pasquan, Bill Razpotnik, Bruce Freitag, and John Pugh Jr.
Walling’s family and friends were at the Blessing of the Fleet dressed in white T-shirts with a black and white photograph of Walling printed on it. He was 17 when he died in a rock climbing accident in Hawaii on Oct. 29, 2009.
His mother Kellie Walling said her son was born and raised in Juneau and though he attended high school in Hawaii, he would return to Juneau each summer to fish. He had worked in the commercial fishing industry as a young boy and fished on the Gimmie Shelter and the Seahawk, she said.
“He was gillnetter, and the summer before he passed away he did dungy fishing,” Kellie said.
“He was going to graduate that year, and he actually had money in the bank, and he was going to buy a crab permit and fish,” Kellie added. “His grandpa wanted to retire and have him take over the boat.”
Before Rev. Douglas Dye of Chapel by the Lake Presbyterian Church gave the official blessing of the fleet and prayed for mercy, the governor said he hoped the day’s sorrows could be lifted by the grace of God, sea and the family of fishermen and women.
“Abundant, bountiful waters, but also oceans of sadness,” Parnell said. “And in part, that is why we gather as a memorial. To rekindle memories, and to share the burden of loss together.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.