Quintessentially Lowcountry: Area adopts East Coast's blessing-of-the-fleet tradition

June 18, 2010 

If Lowcountry people were as blessed as their fleets, maybe this really would be paradise.

At least once a year, boats of all descriptions and their riders can be blessed amid great pageantry.

The tradition of a Blessing of the Fleet is held dear on the coast, where many risk the harsh elements to make a living or seek pleasure on the water.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Tom Tomfohrde acted as the "shepherd" for the Hilton Head Plantation Yacht Club's annual blessing of the fleet.

He worked the radio aboard his 28-foot Glacier Bay catamaran as a flock of 24 boats maneuvered into a single-file line at the mouth of the Chechessee River. Then they cruised by the Rev. Clent Ilderton who was waving blessings from the Seabrook Landing dock in Skull Creek.

With names like Tackle Box, Blue Heron, Equinox, Loose Cannon, Marsh Mellow, Dixie and The Other Woman, many of the boats were specially festooned for the occasion and had special guests aboard.

"I think this is a tradition associated with New England, where the commercial fishermen face such danger," Tomfohrde said. "But I started it with our yacht club nine years ago because it's the only thing we do to get a lot of boats out at the same time -- both the power and sail."

And when they added a barbecue to the end of the day, it became one of the yacht club's annual highlights.

Up and down the coast, blessings of the fleet have bloomed into community-wide festivals in fishing villages from McClellanville to the north and Darien, Ga., to the south.

In Beaufort County, the biggest blessing is a tradition-rich mainstay on the last Sunday of the annual Beaufort Water Festival.

"It is so fitting because the festival is about the water, we live on the water and we have so many boats of all kinds," said Water Festival Commodore Sheri Little.

This year, the Water Festival Blessing of the Fleet will take place from noon to 2 p.m. July 25 at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

A new twist will be added to the event's old traditions.

Cash prizes will be awarded this year instead of cups to winners of the best-decorated boats in three categories. Registration forms and contest information is available at the festival website: www.bftwaterfestival.com.

One reason for the $100 prizes, which can help offset the cost of fuel, is to drum up more participation, said John Gentry, coordinator of the festival's water and air events.

Creativity can run wild with the boat decorating, with pirate themes and red-white-and-blue patriotism always popular.

Traditionally, a priest from St. Peter's Catholic Church stands midway along the Waterfront Park sea wall and offers a maritime prayer. Then as each boat glides in front of him, he sprinkles it with holy water and blesses the boat, citing its name.

The boats range from a dingy to john boats, power boats, sail boats and a few shrimp trawlers.

The great tradition that rides in the lead boat is both festive and sad.

Always on board are the current commodore and the incoming commodore, and the Pirettes team of young girls who represent the festival.

From the lead boat, a wreath is always laid in the water to commemorate all those locally who have lost their lives at sea.

Little said the first pass around the Waterfront Park is a serious, but it is followed by a second pass when partying begins.

This ceremony took over for one held years ago in Beaufort for what was then a large local shrimp fleet.

Gentry thinks it's a perfect event for the final day of the festival.

"It's part of the Beaufort culture," he said. "It's part of the fishing industry, present and past, and what importance it has been to the city and county.

"And it shows that this is paradise for anybody who has a boat."

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