A broken towline hangs from the bow of the SS American Star as the ocean liner pitches in heavy seas and high winds. The Ukrainian oceangoing tug Neftegaz 67 takes a wave over the bow as she begins to maneuver back to the ship, to restore the tow. It’s early 1994, and these vessels are in peril, having motored straight into an Atlantic thunderstorm near the Canary Islands of Spain.
What you don’t see are the struggles of the tugboat crew at this moment. Marine artist Marek Sarba is familiar with those challenges. He served for many years on salvage tugs and merchant ships, having traveled most of the Seven Seas aboard these vessels while honing his painting skills. Sarba has been on the towing deck, and he knows that one mistake can be deadly.
“In action on open waters, when something is going bad, the waves, the heave and roll of the tug, and the slippery deck make it hard to work and keep your balance at the same time,” says Sarba. “Everything on deck is in a constant, misty foam of crushing waves.”
After three days in these conditions, the SS American Star, which had been on her way to Thailand to serve as a floating hotel, drifted ashore and was wrecked at Playa de Garcey in the Canary Islands. “Everything ended sadly,” Sarba says, but “the story fascinated me as an experienced seaman.”
Launched in 1939 as the SS America, the ocean liner began a successful career in the U.S. and European passenger service. She was considered an ideal liner, “not too big so as to overwhelm, not too flashy or pretentious so as to intimidate, charming her passengers with comfortable interiors that combined warmth and sophistication,” said one admirer. That’s why, in the early 1990s, an effort was made by the SS America Preservation Society to re-fit her as a floating hotel.
Sarba researched the incident, composed the scene in his head and then sat down with a cup of good coffee, music on his stereo, and his paints and brushes. “I am not only painting the scene, but I hear the voices of the tugboat crew struggling with the broken towline,” he says. “I feel the engines. I smell the oil. I paint what I know.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.