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In honor of an Alaska fisherman, a memorial that floats

Heather Lende

After popular fisherman and father of three daughters, Richard Boyce, slipped off his gillnetter and drowned on the Fourth of July, his friends wanted to do something positive and honor his memory. So they decided to provide flotation devices in the form of inflatable suspenders for the rubber rain pants of every fisherman in the Haines fleet -- about 176 skippers and deckhands.

Really, one person, Randa Szymanski, spearheaded the effort, with guidance from her fisherman husband and his buddies on what would and would not work. Good intentions won't save lives.

When it comes to life jackets, fishermen are not fans. Even fishermen who can't swim well, which is more than you'd think. Richard wasn't wearing a life jacket or float coat, and most fishermen don't, except in an emergency brought on by a storm or, say, an engine fire. Gillnets like to grab and hold buckles and fasteners as they are reeled in and out, potentially dragging the wearer to his or her death or serious injury.

The inflatable suspenders, made by a company called Stormy Seas, seem to be a good compromise. They're flat, and rather than add a bulky layer, they simply replace the elastic suspenders already on fishing pants. They arrived last week, and Randa has been handing them out on the dock. She said there was enough money donated (about $30,000) to give each boat a throw buoy by Taylortec, too. The real question, is will they wear them?

On Friday, I walked my golden retriever Pearl by the home of a couple of my favorite fishing neighbors, McCoy and Will. McCoy is the great-grandfather of Will's young daughters. They were mending and hanging fall nets in Will's driveway, so I asked about the suspenders -- half-expecting them to say that while they supported the idea, well, they may not change old ways. McCoy is proof that fisherman do make old bones.

But McCoy reckoned they were a good thing, and Will smiled, and said he had already picked his up.

"Want to see them?" He glanced at his daughters' swing set and shushed the barking beagles as he went in the garage and returned with the suspenders draped around his neck. Trikes and toys were all mixed up in the yard where the nets were laid out.

Will has good reasons to wear those suspenders. He said he would use them. And we all agreed that they were pretty neat. The embroidery made me pause -- in Memory of Richard Boyce -- which is what Randa intended. She wanted to prompt Will and other fishermen to take this effort by well-meaning community members seriously.

Richard was a fabricator and tinkerer of the first order. He studied engineering at M.I.T. I bet he would have thought these cleverly designed and practical suspenders are pretty neat, too.

Commercial fishing is among the most dangerous professions in America. In Haines anyway, thanks to Randa and all the donors, and especially the fishermen who are wearing them right now, our fleet just got a lot safer.

Heather Lende writes from Haines. Her new book is "Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs." This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.