Sabbath at Sea

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Sailors throughout the ages have answered to wind and weather. Theirs is a harsh and unforgiving environment, as evidenced by the saying that they have but a 2-inch plank between them and eternity. (The thickness of the plank varies with the speaker of the words.) And though the far-flung mariner could be superstitious, many were God-fearing, as well. A church service was a comfort as they assembled before the captain, surrounded by a seeming infinity of ocean both beautiful and fearful.

In his 24” x 36” oil on canvas painting “Sabbath at Sea,” marine artist Charles Peterson puts us on the pitching deck of a Grand Banks fishing schooner just in time for a Sunday observance. She’s on her way home, with stacked dories on deck and a hold full of fish; perhaps it’s time to give thanks for the catch, and for the safe voyage. The helmsman and bow lookout continue their duties while their shipmates follow the well-known religious ritual, soothing in its familiarity. “Seamen tend be alert whether on watch or not,” Peterson says from his Lake Michigan studio. “Service as a bow gunner on a landing ship tank in our Pacific fleet in World War II made me fully aware that life at sea often produces the sense that we may seriously need help.”

There’s more than personal experience in the scene. There’s family history too. “Much of the detail and character of the ship, I gathered from my library of nautical books, and especially Following the Sea, which was written by my wife’s ancestor, Benjamin Doane,” he says.

The painting won Mystic Seaport’s Thomas Hoyne Award, as well as praise from newscaster and sailor Walter Cronkite, who exclaimed about the artist, “This man can draw.”

“I hope to make whatever I paint believable in both detail and in spirit,” says Peterson, who is a nonagenarian. “My viewer brings his own experience to a sharing of life with me. It is a conversation, if you will.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.