July 28, 2008

A Notable Name to Join the Roll ; Fishermen’s Memorial Dedicated

By Paul Davis

NARRAGANSETT -- The sea offers many gifts to her takers, fisherman Chris Brown said yesterday. Among them: food, a living, solitude, training. She can even strengthen a man's faith, he said.

But when her mood suddenly changes, "she swiftly and randomly takes back."

Yesterday, about 100 people crowded into the Bon Vue Inn to remember 57 Rhode Island fishermen taken by the sea since the 1940s.

Philip Ruhle Sr. was mentioned the most often.

Ruhle, who first stood on a fishing boat as a boy, disappeared Wednesday morning when his 80-foot trawler capsized in 8-foot seas off Atlantic City, N.J.

The two crew members on Ruhle's boat, Sea Breeze, were rescued, but the Coast Guard late Friday called off its search for the 56- year-old North Kingstown captain, after scouring an area larger than the state of Delaware.

According to the Coast Guard, crew member Rayford Carr, of New Bedford, caught a last glimpse of Ruhle as the skipper struggled in the wheelhouse.

The loss of one of Rhode Island's top fishermen is a "reminder of the dangers of this livelihood," said Governor Carcieri, one of several speakers at yesterday's dedication ceremony for a new fishermen's memorial.

Carcieri said Ruhle, whom he appointed to the New England Fisheries Management Council, served there "with great distinction." Ruhle, who also designed an award-winning net that diminishes by- catches, had a far-reaching impact on the state and national fishing industry, Carcieri said.

"The tragic loss of Phil reminds us again of what fishermen face day in and day out," he said.

Officials had hoped to gather at the site of the new Point Judith Fishermen's Memorial, on a spit of grass and sand off Ocean Road. But a violent afternoon storm forced officials, fishermen and others into the nearby Bon Vue Inn.

The memorial site, which overlooks a breakwater and the ocean, includes benches, a granite compass and two pink, gray and black stones that bear the names of 56 local fishermen who died at sea. The oldest names --rescued from the logs of harbormasters -- date back to the 1940s, said Michael L. Marchetti, president of the Point Judith Fishermen's Memorial Foundation.

A third stone includes the John Masefield poem "Sea Fever."

"I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life / To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife," it says.

"The site was chosen ... as a quiet place of reflection to honor the memories of those taken from us," Marchetti said. The memorial, planned for several years, "is away from the bustle of Galilee, but within sight of it."

Commercial fishing boats will pass it as they head for open water, he said.

It's a dangerous way to make a living, say federal officials.

Fishing excursions off the coastal states take a greater percentage of lives than any other profession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From 2000 to 2006, the industry logged an average annual fatality rate of 115 deaths per 100,000 fishermen. The average annual fatality rate among all U.S. workers for that period was 4 deaths per 100,000 workers

In May, 2007, Victor Blanco, 37, of Providence, fell from a Point Judith lobster boat into 10-foot waves south of Montauk, N.Y.

After he disappeared, his wife, Alba Chavez-Blanco, turned their dining room into a shrine. Next to her husband's photograph she placed a glass of holy water, a candle, and two small wooden figures -- a fisherman and a boat.

At yesterday's ceremony, Brown, who is the president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen's Association, remembered others.

On a frigid night in 1987, he said, the sea took skipper Brian Jones and three crew members, Andrew Forsythe, Rowland Bowen and John Trboyevic. "Brian was my friend since childhood and general partner in hell-raising, back when we were both young enough to do it," Brown said.

"He was quick to laugh, quick to fight and he had a sparkle in his eye that may very well not have been of this world."

He was, Brown said, "the symbol of a tough fisherman."

Brown remembered others, too. He halted in his speech as some in the dim-lit bar wept quietly.

Bruce Loftes, he said, was outwardly gruff but inwardly generous. His shared skills produced "many fine captains."

The sea also took Brown's brother-in-law and partner, Scott Westcott, a fisherman who was "genuinely excited to see the next sunrise so that he could learn more."

Phil Ruhle's scratchy voice is still on his cell phone, Brown said.

"We have all lost our fathers, our sons, our brothers and the best damn shipmates we ever had."

But with the dedication of a new memorial, "we are no longer a people in search of hallowed ground. It lies before you. I urge you to use it freely and make it your own."

The Point Judith Fishermen's Memorial, located off Ocean Road in Narragansett, overlooks the ocean that has claimed so many Rhode Islanders who have earned their living at sea. The Providence Journal / Connie Grosch

James Ruhle, the brother of Philip Ruhle, is among those who spoke yesterday. Providence Journal / Connie Grosch [email protected] / (401) 277-7402

Originally published by Paul Davis, Journal Staff Writer.

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