Blessing of the Fleet looks to the past and future

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2001

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A fleet of 11 boats paraded by the Alaska Commercial Fishermen's Memorial in Juneau Saturday morning.

Pastor Earl Midkiff blessed each boat by name as it motored by, asking for calm seas, wise decisions and a good catch. On board the crew, and sometimes children, stood and waved to the 100 people gathered in the frozen rain for the annual Blessing of the Fleet.

"It's a good idea to get whatever aid we can, if the Lord will provide for us," said Dick HofMann, a troller on shore.

About 34 fishing boats sink each year in Alaska, with an average of 24 lives lost, according to a 1997 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Most of the deaths are drowning. Though crabbing in the Bering Sea is the most dangerous fishery, Southeast Alaska had the second highest number of fatalities.

Those deaths add up. HofMann read the 121 names carved into the Fishermen's Memorial, many of them people he'd known.

"Some that are lost without a trace and some that the bodies are recovered," HofMann said. "They're still here in my mind."

Many of the men memorialized on the Fishermen's Memorial are still at sea, their bodies swallowed up. Chuck Johnson disappeared from his gillnetter near Yakutat last year. Alex Imlach's boat was found empty in the Upper Lynn Canal. Their names were added to the memorial this year along with Jack Koby, Jack V. Koby, Chuck Porter, Dean Dewey and Gordon Meyer.

Levi McKinley's body also was never found after he disappeared from his boat July 30, 1993. The 80 other fishermen in the area spent three days searching.

"They immediately stopped what they were doing to search for my dad," said his daughter, Mary Lou McKinley. "Fishing is their livelihood and they stopped."

The lack of a body can make the death of a fisherman even harder for families to accept.

"We kept hoping he'd come walking back into our lives," Mary Lou McKinley said.

Having his name carved into the marble monument helps bring closure, said Levi's widow, Sophie McKinley.

Bob Mallard also felt he needed somewhere to mourn his brother Pat, more than a decade after Pat disappeared on a fishing trip. Pat and his wife Bonnie Mallard were returning to Yakutat during fairly good weather. Bonnie went below and when she came back he was gone.

"It was open-ended, because we were never able to bring closure to his death," Mallard said. "This memorial gives us the opportunity to reconnect with him and bring closure."

A long-liner himself, Mallard knows the risks. He's been out picking up gear in northerly seas when the boat dipped into a trough and the crest of the wave towered above.

"We didn't really have any business being there," said Mallard, who turned around that time. "It's always a risk."

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at

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