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‘On Position’

Oil painting by Marek Sarba

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The salvage tug Foundation Franklin out of Halifax, Nova Scotia — Capt. Harry Brushett in command — maneuvers in heavy seas to take up a tow during a stormy day on the Atlantic. It’s March 1944, and the stricken vessel is the Joel R. Poinsett, a U.S. Liberty ship laden with heavy machinery bound for the European theater.

The 440-footer has broken in two 400 miles southeast of St. John, Newfoundland. The bow section has sunk, but the stern — afloat thanks to watertight bulkheads — pitches dangerously in the heavy seas. Brushett is working the 155-foot Foundation Franklin into position to shoot a line aboard the ship. “He is circling,” says the artist, Polish-born mariner Marek Sarba, “lining up the bow.”

“On Position” depicts a powerful moment: man against the sea. Sarba knows just how it feels. “I am with them,” he says. “I know what is going on. I feel the ship. I hear what the men are saying to each other. There’s the smell of diesel fuel. … I am there.”

Sarba taught himself to paint during a 20-year career aboard merchant ships and oceangoing salvage tugs. He worked on bulk carriers and supertankers, and he skippered his own tug, spending more than 300 days a year at sea. “All the time, I am painting,” he says. “I learned to brace myself against the constant vibration of the ship.”

Filled with raging seas, Sarba’s dramatic works tell compelling stories. There’s the old steam-powered tug laboring to tow a derelict in a terrible winter storm. She’s covered in ice, and a wave has just hit her amidships. Another depicts the steamer President Roosevelt during a grueling rescue of sailors from a foundering English freighter. But it’s the sea — untrammeled and untamed — that dominates the scenes.

As marine artist Ray Ellis puts it: “Few marine artists have really been able to capture the wildness of the sea. It takes years of experience to paint it with true emotion. Marek Sarba takes his place among the finest.”

For more of Sarba’s work, visit the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery website at For more about the artist, visit his website at

July 2013 issue