ILWACO — Like a memorial procession heading to the Graveyard of the Pacific, about 20 charter and other private boats left the Port of Ilwaco Saturday afternoon loaded to the gills with passengers and headed for the Columbia River bar.

The warm, sunny day — along with the glass-calm waters — both belied and buoyed the annual blessing of the fleet’s purpose, to honor those who have lost their lives making a living on the water and to offer a safe season to those who still do.

The caravan of boats weaved their way between the jetties, down the Ilwaco Channel, past Station Cape Disappointment, through Baker Bay and out into the calm but rolling waters of the Columbia River bar.

Tracking the start of the blessing is a practice in oral history. The early 1970s is a popular answer, and Butch Smith of Coho Charters placed the start in 1977.

Leading the procession this year was 66-year-old Patrick Schenk’s vessel the Four Sea’sons.

Schenk’s leisurely demeanor coupled with his ease of navigation on what can be a tricky channel in good weather to tip the hand of a veteran who knows the river like the back of his hand. While he taught mostly seventh- and eighth-grade math for 30 years in Ilwaco, Schenk has been making at least part of his living on the water since he was 10 years old.

“I was the youngest skipper down here at the age of 18,” said Schenk, adding that one of his four sons, Daniel, made his own first navigation of the Columbia River Bar at age 6.

Four Sea’sons is named for a family of three generations, including Schenk’s father, himself and his daughter, who have all had four sons each. Schenk and his family run Sea Breeze Charters in Ilwaco.

“I always thought that the ocean was as close to godliness as you can get,” said Schenk when asked what he thought of the blessing, which he usually missed from being out in the ocean fishing. “We take so much from the ocean.

“I just can’t think of a better resting place.”

Jerry Sadler, the religious leader chosen this year to deliver the fleet’s benediction, is somewhat of a landlubber.

“I just moved here from Colorado two years ago,” said Sadler, who came to be deacon at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Seaview. “We moved from 7,500 feet to 15 feet.”

Sadler rode out on Schenk’s boat to give his blessing, his voice echoing on the radios atop the loose circle of vessels gathered in the mouth of the Columbia.

“Today, we gather to bless this fleet and those who will use it for work or pleasure,” said Sadler. “The Lord calmed the Sea of Galilee and brought his disciples to safety. We command those who sail these crafts to his care.”

Sadler read from the Gospel of Matthew 8:23-27, about calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee.

“Jesus got into a boat, and his disciples followed him,” said Sadler. “Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves. But Jesus was asleep. The disciples came and woke him, saying ‘Lord save us; we’re perishing.’

“Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you terrified, oh ye of little faith?’ Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.”

Sadler went on to bestow a blessing: “Bless the boats of this fleet, their equipment and all who will use them. Protect them from the dangers of wind and rain and all the perils of the deep.”

The usual tradition of a Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter dropping a wreath into the center of the loose congregation was cut short by sequestration, although the Coast Guard kept a look out with a 25-foot fast response boat. When it came to laying the wreath, blessing organizer Milt Gudgell obliged.

“It’s an annual way of kicking off the fishing season,” said Gudgell, who runs Pacific Salmon Charters, the charter vessel Sarah Kay and has been in Ilwaco since 1972.

After he laid the wreath in the water, boats came by dropping flowers and ashes of the dearly departed, all souls closely tied to the water. In all, Sadler read the names of 11 people associated with the local fishery who died in the past year: John Hughes, Frank Unfred, Maurice Graham, Eric Schoonmaker, David Cadwell, David Christianson, Earl Sandness, Dave Clemmons, Jean Yarzenbach, Larry Rogers and James Herrion.

For fisherman like Schenk, life and a living continues on the water. This month comes sturgeon; salmon season starts June 22; tuna season comes in the last week of July; and he also does halibut and other bottom fishing.

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