ROCKLAND — “Upon seeing the sketch of the faceless seaman and sailors, I actually got chills with such a tremendous tribute to the crew,” said CDR John Buckley (retired), U.S. Navy, who wore his uniform to represent all senior member officers who truly cared for and served the persons in their charge.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, the City of Rockland closed Atlantic Street so that the community could attend a dedication ceremony for an “El Faro Salute!” memorial, sculpted by Jay Sawyer, of Warren. In the wake of an offshore hurricane that menaced the coastline with strong winds just a day before, hundreds of people gathered to either run their fingers across their loved ones’ names, laud Sawyer’s efforts and accomplishments with bringing this sculpture to fruition, or simply to support the merchant maritime industry.
“We are handing this over to the local community to be the host,” said Sawyer. “You’ve been selected. This community, because there are two crew members on this ship that lived in this community. Because this is Rockland, the art capital of Maine. It’s because of the Harbor Trail [and the Trail committee of volunteers who help to bring public access to the waterfront]. It’s because of beautiful Penobscot Bay. It’s because of the lighthouse that’s out there at the end of the Breakwater, and El Faro is Spanish for lighthouse. It’s for the sunrise; it’s one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen.”
Buckley told the audience of the advice he learned in 1979.
“Don’t come out and be the big bossman,” he was told. “We won’t disobey your orders, but we won’t help you none either. Come out here, work with the people, and we’ll tell you all we know.”
Sawyer worked with many people in constructing his sculpture, and in return, he learned a lot – the effect of the ship’s sinking, the merchant marine loyalty, the community support, and about himself.
One unexpected tidbit that he learned – for those who analyze the female jacket in his sculpture – the awkwardness and bulge of the fabric are actually worse in real life.
“A female maritime uniform isn’t meant to look all that beautiful on the ladies sometimes,” said Sawyer. “It was described to me as a male jacket that was adapted for a lady. How that falls, the female jacket fits really really tight in here [the upper torso]. And when that lady lifts her arm up to salute, it rocks. So, if you think that [sculpture] is out of kilter, you should see it if I made it so it looked like the pictures of the uniforms. That’s about 20 percent of how much that uniform does that.”
As Mayor Ed Glaser said, people who go to sea are strong people.
Sylvester Crawford was an experienced seaman, good at his job, dedicated, a team player. You don’t get too many of those people, according to Dave Sulin, who tried to recruit Crawford for his ship. But, Sulin wasn’t leaving for another ten months, and Crawford couldn’t afford to wait.
After news broke that El Faro had gone missing on Oct. 1, 2015, with all 33 crew members lost, Sulin received the words that would shatter his heart. “Sly was on that ship.” Sulin then needed to muster his emotions in order to share the news with his crew, for he also knew Danielle Randolph.
The El Faro was Dylan Meklin’s first ship.
“It just didn’t seem fair,” said Sawyer, “and it took me the longest time to deal with that.”
Sawyer well remembers the thoughts that went through his mind when he, too, was new to a shipping vessel.
“The range of emotions you go through is incredible. And it’s fast. And there’s up and down....Do you lose your plant every time you turn around? Do you panic when the alarms go off? Do you hold your cool, and be there and wait for direction from those that really know what to do, and you can be helpful even if it’s just to go open that valve? It might be that simple, but you help. It’s quite an experience and it’s what makes a man out of a young man.”
That range of emotions is now for the community to experience, in the form of public art. Public art holds the power to relate, said Sawyer. Memorials have staying power, according to Jane Bianco, curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum. And art can help the healing process.
To the audience, Sawyer said: “This sculpture’s yours, and it’s yours to care for and be concerned about. I’m happy to turn it over to you folks.”
See our previous articles:
Hand, heart and steel: ‘El Faro’ memorial nears completion; dedication ceremony planned for September
Reach Sarah Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org