Fleet of Flowers: A community’s tradition

Story and photos by Seaman Johanna Strickland.

After two local fishermen, Ray Bower and Jack Chambers, lost their lives in the 1930s to a tempestuous sea in a harrowing rescue attempt near Depoe Bay, Oregon, the community cast flowers upon the ocean, thus beginning a tradition that continues today.

Depoe Bay fleet participates in Fleet of Flowers

A fleet boats from the Port of Depoe Bay, Ore., transits out of Depoe Bay to particpate in the Fleet of Flowers wreath laying ceremony in memorial of people lost at sea, May 30, 2016. Three Coast Guard motor life boats and a Coast Guard helicopter joined the fleet as part of the community-wide effort.

Each year in the small fishing village of Depoe Bay, the community and visitors alike come together to honor the lives of those lost at sea in a truly unique ceremony known as Fleet of Flowers. Depoe Bay’s tradition of throwing flowers into the sea began in 1936 with the community response to losing the lives of Bower and Chambers and continued throughout the years, pausing briefly during World War II. The tradition grew to honor not only those lost at sea, but also anyone who has found pleasure, beauty, solace or adventure upon it starting in 1945 with the first official Fleet of Flowers ceremony.

“It’s a pleasure and an honor to be able to participate in remembrance of those people who have lost their lives in service to the country, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Aaron Bretz, officer in charge, Coast Guard Station Depoe Bay. “We owe a great deal to them, so for us to be able to participate in a ceremony like this on Memorial Day is an honor, and it is especially rewarding to be able to work with the community to put something on like this.”

Coast Guard Station Depoe Bay participates in Fleet of Flowers

A Coast Guard Station Depoe Bay 47-foot Motor Life Boat crew transits out of the Port of Depoe Bay, Ore., as it leads the Fleet of Flowers into the Pacific Ocean to toss flowers, boughs and wreaths into the sea in memory of those who lost their lives at sea, March 30, 2016. This year’s ceremony was the 71st edition of the ceremony.

Personnel from Station Depoe Bay proudly participate in the annual ceremony by gathering cedar for floral arrangements, tying cedar boughs and adorning with decoration the Highway 101 bridge that crosses over “The Hole,” which is the entrance into the port of Depoe Bay. Crewmembers also provide a color guard and a 21-gun salute for the official ceremony.

Retired Coast Guard Capt. Craig Eisenbeis and retired Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas McAdams both spoke at the Fleet of Flowers ceremony, sharing personal stories from their careers and reminding all of the importance of honoring those who gave all they had.

“Having them obligate their time to make comments and be involved in the ceremony is really special for our area,” said Brady Weidner, city superintendent of Depoe Bay. “We are a proud community and we were pretty lucky. It was special to have these gentlemen here with us. They’re living legends. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and this is a really good event.”

Air Facility Newport participates in Fleet of Flowers

A Coast Guard aircrew aboard an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Facility Newport, Ore., approach a fleet of boats near Depoe Bay as they participate in the Fleet of Flowers memorial, May 30, 2016. This was the 71st rendition of the Fleet of Flowers that began in 1945.

The Fleet of Flowers procession begins with flower and wreath-covered Coast Guard motor life boats, two 47-foot MLBs from Station Depoe Bay and the 52-foot MLB Victory from Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay. Local vessels, also covered in various ornaments, cedar boughs and flowers, follow the MLBs out to sea. Every bough is assembled by hand and includes a variety of local cedar and flowers. Volunteers tie more than 1,000 floral arrangements for the festival.

After passing through the hole, the fleet proceeds to one mile offshore to create a large circle with their vessels. A Coast Guard aircrew aboard an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, from Coast Guard Air Facility Newport, uses the circle as a target of sorts, settles into a hover in the middle and lowers a rescue swimmer carrying a large wreath that is placed on the water in memory of lives lost.

Once this homage is paid, all of the vessels in the circle cast flowers upon the sea. The fleet returns to port in a procession that ends the traditional ceremony, but the memories of local heroes remain alive. The boughs and flowers remain at sea, floating as a constant reminder of all the loved ones lost.

Station Yaquina Bay participates in Fleet of Flowers

The Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay 52-foot Motor Life Boat Victory crew transits out of the Port of Depoe Bay, Ore., as it participates in the Fleet of Flowers, March 30, 2016. The Fleet of Flowers is an annual ceremony where a fleet of boats from the Port of Depoe Bay throws flowers, boughs and wreaths into the sea as a memorial to those who lost their lives at sea.

 

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