Wrangell celebrates the blessing of the fleet at the newly completed Mariners’ Memorial

Wrangell's Fleet Blessing
Blessing of the Wrangell fleet in 2023. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

The Blessing of the Fleet is a tradition for many coastal communities as anglers prepare for the summer season. On Sunday, the Wrangell community in Southeast Alaska reinvigorated tradition by holding the ceremony at its newly completed Mariners’ Memorial.

Wrangell residents and visitors gathered in groups in a drizzle, some in suits, others in rain gear and Xtratuf boots. They were standing between the curved, boat-shaped memorial walls and under the red-and-white gazebo of the Wrangell’s Mariners’ Memorial lighthouse.

Some doffed their hats as Girl Scout Troop #26 presents the colors.

Wrangell’s Mariners’ Memorial stands on the edge of Heritage Harbor, about a mile south of town. Outside the harbor breakwater, three ships rocked, tuning in to the Blessing of the Fleet on VHF radio.

Wrangell Sailors Monument
Wrangell’s Mariners’ Memorial in 2021, before it was completed. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Pastor Sue Bahleda introduced the service.

“The blessing of the fleet is our collective hope, our collective prayers for those who ply our waters,” he said. “So if you follow his newsletter, it’s not just us asking for these blessings. It’s all our voices together.”

Along with the Salvation Army lieutenants. Jon and Rosie Tollerud, Bahleda read a blessing for ships of all kinds: fishing boats, barges, ferries, and cruise ships.

Last year was the first year that friends and family were able to request plaques at the Mariners’ Memorial: 43 names were added to its walls. Some have an anchor next to the name, indicating a life lost at sea. The board members read out the names and rang a ship’s bell for each one.

This year, there are 14 new names. Some are veteran fishermen who died of natural causes. Others have more tragic stories, like 27-year-old Arne Dahl, who died after his boat sank in late November. His partner, Kelsey Leak, survived the sinking and attended the Blessing of the Fleet with some of Dahl’s friends from the south.

“My friends,” Bahleda said as the last of the 57 names was read, “we conclude this day with a prayer that is a song from the family hymn: Eternal Father of love and power. All travelers protect from our dangers; From rock and storm, from fire and enemy, protect them wherever they go. Thus the joyous hymns and the praise of the land and the sea will rise forever and together we say: ‘Amen’”.

It marks the first time the Wrangell Fleet Blessing has taken place since the ribbon cutting of the memorial last September.

Wrangell's Fleet Blessing
Hugs after Wrangell’s 2023 Blessing of the Fleet ceremony. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Memorial board member Jeff Jabusch notes that there is still work to be done.

“We have to set up landscaping, we’re going to do some display cases inside that will show our membership or volunteers and donors,” Jabusch said. “We’re also going to have a database accessible online where all members of the wall can tell their story and people can eventually access it.”

The Wrangell Sailors Monument has come a long way since the project began in earnest in 2018.

It has been the work of dozens of local people, some of whom have lost family members in the ocean. They have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of volunteer time.

And now it’s home to the annual Fleet Blessing, and the memories of generations of Wrangell sailors.

a compass
An 800-pound wind rose in the center of the Wrangell Mariners’ Memorial pavilion. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)