The on-water portion of the Souls at Sea ceremony includes a floatilla of African American boat owners. Photo: Universal Sailing Club

Souls at Sea Ceremony Honors Middle Passage Victims, African Americans Lost at Sea

A moving commemoration is to be held in St. Michaels, Maryland, next weekend in honor of enslaved Africans lost during passages to America and a Black American sailor who is at this very moment lost at sea.

Joining the Black sailing organization Universal Sailing Club inspired Regina Hartfield to found Souls at Sea 10 years ago.

Hartfield’s connection to the Universal Sailing Club began with the original Black Boaters Summit, a 20-year annual gathering of Black sailors and boaters held mostly in the British Virgin Islands and founded by the late Captain Paul Mixon.

Hartfield recalls, “I went alone, didn’t know anybody at first, but I met some wonderful people, including members of the Baltimore-based Universal Sailing Club.” 

As a member, Hartfield enjoyed seeing Black people with boats going where they wanted when they wanted. “Our ancestors didn’t have that freedom when they were enslaved and brought here in ships by way of the Middle Passage. I felt that as a sailing community, it would be fitting for us to recognize all those souls who were lost.”

The first Souls at Sea took place in 2013. “And the fact that we’re here 10 years later is amazing to me. I was in shock when we got to three years—10 is unbelievable!”  

Over the years, Souls at Sea has taken its commemorative ceremony to the port cities of Baltimore, Annapolis, and Cambridge. For many participants, Souls at Sea 2017, hosted partially on the grounds of Cambridge’s historic Bayly House, was particularly memorable. In front of her property’s recently discovered slave cabin, the owner read aloud the names of each enslaved person who lived in the one-room structure. This year, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) was chosen to serve as the event’s host. 

At its core, Souls at Sea is grounded in ancestral tradition, honor, and remembrance. The commemoration is a two-part ceremony held on land and the water. The land portion of the ceremony will be held on the museum’s grounds along Fogg’s Cove adjacent to the Van Lennep Auditorium.

Although on-water participation is restricted to club members, “public participants can get a true sense of what is done on the water by their participation on land,” Hartfield explained.  Captain Bill Reddick, Trip Leader and member of both the Universal Sailing Club and the Seafarers Yacht Club, describes his personal connection to the ceremony:  “I’m blessed to have grown up on the Chesapeake and to be a part of this wonderful resource. And it’s an honor for me to lead the flotilla of African American boats that are a part of this ancestral recognition of Africans that did not survive the Middle Passage as well as those who leaped overboard and cast their fate to the sea.”

In keeping with its West African origins, Baba Ademola, a Baltimore-based practitioner of the Yoruba tradition, guides participants through an explanation of the ceremony and its meaning. As sailors, he explains, the group is connected to the water and its protectors, the Yoruba deities of Yemaja and Oshun. Following a libation (a ritual pouring of a liquid to honor a deity or the soul of a deceased loved one) the captains, first mates, and their boats receive a blessing. African drumming and dancing follow, and before the boats depart, participants can honor their maternal and paternal ancestors by speaking each name out loud.

“The point at which we’re able to call out to our own ancestors  is a powerful moment,”  Hartfield said. 

This year, representatives from the National African American Quilt Guild will present a quilt commemorating the 10th anniversary of Souls at Sea. At the end of land-based celebrations, the boats will set out for Miles River and the on-water ceremony to offer prayers, a libation, and acknowledgment of water protectors and the ancestors.

“For 10 years the Universal Sailing Club has been honoring the pain and suffering of our ancestors,” said Fleet Captain Alyson Hall. “ We will never forget their sacrifice and know that they would be proud of our achievements against supreme odds. We are mariners reflecting on and celebrating our legacy of strength, resilience and love.”

In April 2023 the Universal Sailing Club conferred honorary lifetime membership to Black sailing advocate Captain Donald Lawson and his wife Tori Lawson, for his extraordinary sailing accomplishments and record-setting ambitions.

Lawson is missing from his racing catamaran off the coast of Acapulco after running into trouble on an attempted solo passage to Baltimore through the Panama Canal.

“On August 19, 2023, the Universal Sailing Club Souls at Sea Middle Passage Ceremony will honor Captain Donald Lawson for his tremendous contribution to the sport and in recognition of his efforts to introduce more people of African ancestry to sailing,” said Hall. “We continue to pray for Captain Lawson and his family.”

-Niambi Davis