It’s a little early to write about this upcoming holiday, but it’s one that I wasn’t aware of until it recently came across my radar via various professional networks. And it’s a holiday that celebrates the heritage and value of our coasts not for its seafood but for the people who work on the water. May 22 is the 91st National Maritime Day. If you trace it back to its true origins, it celebrates over 200 years of maritime history. The official holiday was established by Congress in 1933 in honor of the first transoceanic voyage made by an American steamship.

The famous steamship, the Savannah, left from Savannah, Georgia, on May 22, 1819, headed for Liverpool, England. It apparently caused a stir when it was seen off the coast of Ireland with smoke coming from it. Those who saw it assumed it was on fire and sent boats out to help, but the ship was too fast to catch. The rescue boats fired a few shots to get the Savannah’s attention but soon realized that the ship was not actually on fire but was instead a very speedy American ship complete with sails, a paddle wheel and a steam engine, which was responsible for the smoke. For several years after the ship returned to the United States, it served as a transport ship carrying goods along the eastern coast. Sadly, the Savannah’s seagoing days ended when she crashed and sank off the coast of New York in 1821.

Shipwreck Long Island

A 1819 painting of the SS Savannah, by Hunter Wood, LT USMS. A chunk of weatherbeaten flotsam that washed up on a New York shoreline after Tropical Storm Ian last fall has piqued the interest of experts who say it is likely part of the SS Savannah. Savannah Morning News via AP

Many decades later, Congress decided to mark the historical voyage by establishing National Maritime Day. Steam power marked a turning point in maritime industry in the United States, allowing for faster transport of goods both domestically and abroad. With that came the need for skilled maritime professionals to be captains and crew on these vessels as well as those to support their industry — that includes the Merchant Marines, one of the groups celebrated on National Maritime Day. The Merchant Marines operate both in the military circles and in the shipping world, moving troops and supplies safely wherever they need to go. They are honored in celebrations around the country with safety demonstrations, ceremonies honoring sailors who have served in the past and demonstrations of different types of vessels from tugs to tows to pilot boats used to escort large tankers ashore.

Often, they also include tours of a variety of seagoing vessels. One of these is a ship named after the famous steamship, but this one featured a new powerful technology: nuclear power. The NS Savannah was the first nuclear-powered merchant ship, commissioned in the 1950s. Decommissioned in 1972, she now resides at Pier 13 of the Canton Marine Terminal in Baltimore, Maryland. Tours and celebrations aboard the vessel sometimes take place on National Maritime Day.

Here in Maine, there are local groups that celebrate the holiday, one of which is the Maine chapter of the Propeller Club of the United States. It was founded right around the time of the establishment of the holiday in 1932 and includes representatives from a number of maritime-related industries. It convenes regularly and also offers educational events. Each year, it also awards “Maritime Person of the Year” and “Propeller Club Member of the Year,” both of which take place on National Maritime Day.

Maine is certainly rich in its maritime industry — from Bath Iron Works to Maine Maritime Academy to the Maine Maritime Museum, which offers great exhibits on the topic. One way to celebrate this year’s Maritime Day is to visit Bath’s Maine Maritime Museum’s Community Day, coming up on May 18. Admission is free to the public and there will be tours of the Percy & Small Shipyard, demonstrations of traditional ship building and a cannon salute at noon.

This is all fitting ahead of Memorial Day, as well, as a reminder of the importance of those involved in the maritime industry and their sacrifice to the safety of our country. According to the U.S. Propeller Club, more than 250,000 members of the American Merchant Marines served their country during World War II. Over 6,700 lost their lives and many more were held as prisoners. This is an impressive and significant sacrifice that this sometimes-forgotten holiday helps us to remember.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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