Coming Full Circle At The Blessing Of The Fleet
Since I was a young child, I’ve sailed with my family on my Dad’s charter fishing boat in the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Montauk, on the second Sunday in June.
We’d line up in a procession to sail past the town dock, where the members of the clergy would stand in their robes with their hands up, blessing each boat as it cruised by. Then we’d all parade out of the harbor, past the jetties, and wait for the 87-foot Coast Guard cutter to come out, with the clergy and members of the families who had lost a local fisherman over the past year. Each family would take turns throwing a flowered wreath into the water to commemorate their loved one—from captains, to mates, to surfcasters. Then they’d toss in a wreath for all the Montauk fishermen who have died over the past years.
At each ceremony, my Dad would decorate his boat with brightly-colored flags, and he and my mother would invite their friends for a party on the boat during the ceremony, with wine, beer, smoked fish, lobster salad, deviled eggs, and various dips. I would try not to think of the unavoidable fate that some day, I’d be tossing a wreath in for my own father, who loved fishing so much that in 1949, he forfeited a promising career as a civil engineer to return to Montauk after the Navy and college, to take over his father’s old wooden charter boat when he retired. My grandfather and his brother had started the first charter boats in Montauk during the 1940’s, and now there were over 100 of them in the harbor.
My father kept the name “Dawn,” through two more teak-wood boats. Although he could never join my mother in church, because weekends were his busiest days, he always said he felt closest to God when he sailed out of the harbor at 5:30 each morning as he watched the sun rise. He also vowed he would never retire, and would die with his boots on.
The inevitable day finally came for me in the 2009 Blessing of the Fleet, after my Dad succumbed to lung cancer at age 85, the year before. True to his word, he fished his last trip only a few months prior. The “Lucky Strikes” and “Camels” that were so popular with his fishing buddies during their early years finally took him down, even though he quit smoking at age 50.
I’ll never forget how hundreds of fishermen came to his funeral, and lined the jetties when we took his ashes to out to sea. He and his cronies fished the “good years,” when there were acres and acres of fish to be caught, from swordfish to tunas and even some marlins. I also mourned the loss of this generation, in their 70’s and 80’s, who were gradually being replaced by a younger generation who faced new challenges of fishing restrictions.
And here I was, looking out on the same majestic Montauk harbor I saw for almost 50 years in the Blessing of the Fleet, only this time it was from the side of the Coast Guard Cutter Ridley with the other families and the clergy. It was surreal to be at the rail, on a glorious sunny day, and to hear my Dad’s name called, not seeing his boat in the procession. I turned around to see all the beautiful wreaths lined up for the seven deceased fishermen, plus one for all the rest of them. I picked up one with red, white and blue carnations and an American flag-style bow, thinking of my Dad’s service in the Navy, and watched it fall into the sea. The wreaths bobbed up and down in the waves while the Coast Guard played “TAPS,” and all the boats circled around our boat for a better view.
I thought of all the years I bugged my Dad to steer his 36-foot charter boat up close to the cutter, so I could get a picture of the families throwing in their wreaths.
“Closer, Dad!” I would yell, hanging off the stern with my telephoto lens in those days. He always grumbled, but he did his best to get me great shots year after year.
As he got into his 80’s, and was still running the “Dawn,” I realized I’d better focus my camera on him. So I pointed my zoom lens up to the bridge, where he reigned in the captain’s seat for more than 65 years. He tried to hide from my camera, but now I’m glad I have those shots of him wearing his captain’s hat, tan weathered skin, standing on the bridge, spiting the cancer that ultimately took him.
Standing next to me on the Coast Guard cutter this year was 16 year-old Cody McMillan of Levittown. He was tossing a wreath for his father, Marty McMillan. The two had been inseparable fishing buddies until last November, when they were off the Montauk Lighthouse in their boat and Marty fell overboard and tragically got caught in some nets. My heart went out to this young boy, as he tried to be brave despite his deep loss. It wasn’t fair that he lost his father so young. I thought of all the times I’d worried that my father wouldn’t come home from sea—all the hurricanes, thunderstorms and foggy days. All the times he would leave my mother, sister and me in a hurricane, to go down to the docks and “ride out the storm” with his mate, so he could save his boat and his livelihood.
My father’s Dad died at 54, and my Dad never thought he’d see 60. Every birthday after that, he couldn’t believe he was still here. At that moment, I felt so blessed he had lived so long.
I thought about how Cody McMillan and I—and all the Long Island families on that cutter—had lived our lives around the sea, with someone in our family who loved it with a passion that made them takes risks, and sometimes even lose their lives. We are better people for knowing them. It makes me sad, but thankful.