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Fishermen’s sanctuary weathers a different kind of storm

Vandalism has supporters wondering how to maintain public access while protecting the Newport memorial.

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On Saturday, the Newport Fishermen’s Wives will host the annual Blessing of the Fleet. Like much else, this year’s event will be pared down, but at heart, it remains a time to remember those lost at sea and to honor those who continue to work the turbulent waters that provide sustenance for the state and beyond.

Fishing is a culture in itself in this ocean-and-bayfront town, a way of life that colors the community far beyond the fishing docks.

The nature of the blessing gives it a solemn tone — albeit lightened in non-COVID times with fun and games — but this year it is shadowed by the discovery last month that the Fishermen’s Memorial Sanctuary had been vandalized. Now, this place of contemplation, worship, and remembrance will be just a little less open, access to the mementos that mark fishing-family lives, restricted.


Newport Fishermen's Memorial Sanctuary in Yaquina Bay State Park. Photo by Lori Tobias

Blessing of the Fleet

Saturday, May 15

10 a.m. Memorial service, Fishermen’s Memorial Sanctuary in Yaquina Bay State Park

11:30 a.m. Boat Parade/Blessing, Port of Newport, near the International terminal

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1:30 p.m. Barbecue, Port of Newport parking lot 


The sanctuary has been in place since the late 1970s, when the Fishermen’s Wives contracted with Oregon State Parks to locate the shelter in Yaquina Bay State Park. Visitors leave photos of loved ones, as well as flowers and candles in their memory. The benches in the partially enclosed shelter offer a place to reflect or just a quiet escape. The park overlooks Yaquina Bay and the jetties leading out to the Pacific, and families and friends can often be found watching from above, as boats transit the bar separating the bay from the sea.

“When a boat goes down and a fisherman is lost, a lot of the time no body is recovered,” said Taunette Dixon, spokeswoman for the group. “It’s very hard to recover the body. A lot of large ports have memorials in place for people to grieve their loved one. The reason this one is so large and covered is we wanted families of not only fishermen lost, but also families who have their loved ones out at sea working, to go to feel comfort. It’s been a pretty big part of our community since it was built.”

Vandals last month broke windows, destroyed vases, and threw flowers and mementos around the Newport Fishermen’s Memorial Sanctuary. Photo by: Taunette Dixon
Vandals last month broke windows, destroyed vases, and threw flowers and mementos around the Newport Fishermen’s Memorial Sanctuary. Photo by: Taunette Dixon

Dixon discovered the destruction April 11 when she stopped by the sanctuary to bring flowers from a nearby memorial service the night before. Members of Newport Fishermen’s Wives often assist with funeral services for fishermen, and on that night, the family requested the abundance of flowers go to the Memorial Sanctuary.

“When I went to deliver the flowers, it was just complete destruction,” Dixon said. “We’ve had this happen before; we’ve had windows vandalized; people urinate … but not to this level. Whoever it was took flower vases and threw them at the wall, out the window. Windows were broken. Mementos scattered. There was shattered glass everywhere on the floor; debris everywhere. Just coming from a fishing family service, it was pretty devastating.”

The response from the community has been overwhelming, with people rallying to help clean up and repair, donating time, materials, and money, Dixon said. Funds not needed for repairs will help pay for overdue improvements. The vandalism has also re-energized ongoing talks about the sanctuary’s security.

“The last 10 years we’ve talked about ways to make it safer for people to come into the memorial,” Dixon said. “It is an enclosed building that is also open. It keeps the weather out and it has been accessible at any time. Homeless people have been in there for years, and they have been super respectful of the meaning behind it, the loved ones. We have compassion for everybody that needs shelter; it’s just that it’s important for us to protect that facility. In the long run, we don’t know what we’re going to do.”

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Newport police keep an eye on the sanctuary, but it’s difficult to see inside at night because of the placement of the windows, Dixon said. Since the vandalism, a local security firm has offered to donate a motion detection camera and to monitor the sanctuary at night. But ways visitors can share the memory of their loved ones will change: No more flaming candles — battery-operated candles will be allowed — and no more glass.

A plinth inside the sanctuary, “Dedicated in loving memory of Lincoln County based fishermen lost at sea since 1900,” serves as a base for photos, candles, and other remembrances of lost sailors. Many of the mementos were damaged in last month’s vandalism. Photo courtesy: Newport Fishermen’s Wives
A plinth inside the sanctuary, “Dedicated in loving memory of Lincoln County based fishermen lost at sea since 1900,” serves as a base for photos, candles, and other remembrances of lost sailors. Many of the mementos were damaged in last month’s vandalism. Photo courtesy: Newport Fishermen’s Wives

“We gathered all the survivable mementos and pictures and carefully went through them, and everything we were able to, we laminated and put into frames without glass,” Dixon said. “We’re trying to get mementos up in a safe way, and make sure they’re not creating any more hazards in the building.”

A local professional painter has offered to paint the building at no charge and Sherwin-Williams is donating the paint, she said. But it will be a long time before anyone forgets last month’s destruction.

“Pictures don’t do it justice,” Dixon said. “I’ve seen vandalism in that building before. I have never seen the destruction I saw that morning.”

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If you are interested in donating to the memorial building fund, go to the Fishermen’s Wives website. Or you can mail donations to: Newport Fishermen’s Wives, Memorial Building Fund, PO Box 971, Newport, OR 97365

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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