Ode to a mariner, and others who left us in 2012


When something positively life-changing happens, it’s referred to as your ship coming in.

My older son’s ship came in last August. Literally.

The ship was the U.S. Brig Niagara, during Navy Week in Toledo. My son Ian was at International Park waiting for it to sail up the Maumee River.

I was at work when my cell phone buzzed with this text from him: “She’s here.” “She” is the reconstructed vessel from which Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated a six-ship flotilla of the British Navy off South Bass Island during the War of 1812.

He texted that he caught the first mooring line, thrown by a deckhand and friend. He also caught the attention of those in charge of the Niagara who remembered him from when he volunteered on the ship a few years ago. Catching that line was the start of a tour on board the Niagara the rest of the summer and early fall.

In October, Ian phoned my wife and me about a job offer he received from those who run the Niagara. The job was with a crew preparing the ship for winter in its dock at a museum in Erie, Pa.

But in the next breath, he said he got a call from a friend on a tall ship on the East Coast. This friend was a woman he met when they were on the volunteer crew of replicas of Christopher Columbus’ ships Nina and Pinta last spring.

She said the tall ship she was on was looking for deckhands for a sailing trip along the East Coast and eventually to Texas, where the ship would be docked for the winter. She urged him to apply.

After much thought, he decided to stay with the Niagara. My wife and I were glad, because we were familiar with where he was and were comfortable of that position.

Our glee took a somber turn a couple of weeks later. Hurricane Sandy was sweeping up the East Coast. A tall ship trying to find safety in the open sea instead sailed into Sandy’s fury. A generator powering a pump to rid the ship of water that was crashing aboard gave out. The ship sank.

The ship was the Bounty. It was the ship that Ian could have sailed on. Sixteen crew members went into the water. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 14 of them.

The body of the ship’s captain never was found. The sole person to perish and whose body was recovered was Ian’s friend who had phoned him about the deckhand opportunity.

Her name was Claudene Christian. My wife and I never met her, but Ian had told us in the spring about the vivacious woman he met on the Columbus ships.

She was, he told us, the kind of person who brightens the day for those around her — a cheerleader of sorts. Maybe that was because she had been a cheerleader at the University of Southern California.

She had an entrepreneurial spirit, he said. She developed a Web site on which she sold cheerleader dolls.

She was the kind of person, Ian said, with whom he wanted to maintain a friendship. She would be going places and doing interesting things.

Ian keeps his emotions inside, a source of worry for my wife. She would rather that he talk about his feelings. I would say her take on this is typical for a woman, and his is typical for a guy, but I don’t want to trivialize or stereotype their beliefs.

We got a call the night of the tragedy from our younger son, Andrew, who is a graduate student in Pittsburgh. He asked whether we had talked with Ian about Claudene’s death, because Ian had called him to discuss his grief. There’s something positive about two brothers who are there for each other.

Weeks later, during a Saturday phone call deep into college football season, Ian told me he was going to text the results of a game to Claudene that she would find interesting, only to realize that he can’t do that anymore. That, a clergyman friend told me, was the grieving process manifesting itself.

I too grieve for her. My wife said it best: Here was a woman whom we never met, but her life — and her death — touched us through her friendship with our son.

I grieve for others. In 2012, five of my friends lost their mothers to advanced age and declining health. Two women whom I got to know through my job lost their husbands, in each case tragically. A colleague and friend of mine and many others here at The Blade, Jim Kwiatkowski, passed away.

As 2012 ends, we in the media run stories and photos of famous people who left us during the year. Claudene’s death was national news, but her passing hit home in Toledo.

In the body of this column is her photo. Beside it is a blank spot, to represent the special person you will begin the year without.

I hope your blank space will be empty. But to those who grieve the loss of a loved one in 2012 and must go on with life, I offer a traditional mariner’s blessing: fair wind and following seas.

Dennis Bova is a copy editor for The Blade’s Pages of Opinion. Contact him at: bova@theblade.com