As we welcome the arrival of spring, boaters are eager to christen the new season with activities ranging from a fresh coat of paint on the hull to a thorough inspection or a bottle of bubbly with glasses held high. But across the country, some seaside communities celebrate their return to the water with The Blessing of the Fleet, a ritual that turns to the heavens to safeguard mariners, pray for a bountiful catch and remember those who were lost at sea.
The ceremony dates back to ancient times and finds its roots in Mediterranean fishing villages. European colonization spread the practice around the globe, and Catholic immigrants brought the tradition to America about 300 years ago. During the 20th century, it became more widespread along North American oceans, rivers, lakes and bays, and other denominations absorbed the rite into their services.
The basic elements of the Blessing of the Fleet are quite simple: a priest or pastor offers prayers and a sprinkling of holy water to a variety of vessels including working boats, rescue vessels, trawlers, recreational craft, tugboats and even dinghies. Often in attendance are members of the Coast Guard in uniform, Knights of Columbus with their pointy hats and sabers, church choirs singing hymns and other groups.
Most Blessings of the Fleet take place in spring to kick off the fishing or shrimping season. Others are linked to religious holidays such as the Epiphany or Easter. Some Portuguese and Italian communities celebrate on Mother’s Day to honor Our Lady of Fatima and decorate the base of her statue with red flowers for living mothers and white blooms for the deceased. An anchor made of red and white blossoms is tossed into the sea in remembrance of those who perished beneath the waves.
A mass often kicks off the festivities, followed by a processional of officiants and the faithful from the church to the waterfront where an armada of boats is waiting to receiveblessings. Colorful flags, lights, streamers, banners, pendants and more decorate the fleet as they parade through the water. Friends and family line the shore, waving, cheering, singing, drinking and feasting.
No two Blessings of the Fleet are the same. What makes them especially interesting and unique are the size of the seaside communities and the religion, culture, history, traditions and heritage of their people. Some small towns like somber, intimate ceremonies with only a handful of vessels and watermen receiving prayers. Others prefer a more boisterous celebration with thousands of well-wishers gathered for food, music, games, pageants, fairs, fish fries, races and lavish after parties. Many are attached to other regional maritime festivals such as seafood or holiday events.
If you’d like to witness a Blessing of the Fleet this season or join one and let your boat receive good thoughts for safe journeys, see the following list for some of our favorites across the country. Or contact your local marina to find out if a blessing event is taking place near you.
Tarpon Springs, FL
Every year on the day before the Epiphany, priests from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral bless the sponge boats and divers and remember those who lost their lives. Part of the ceremony includes tossing a cross into the water and young men jumping in and competing to retrieve it.
March 12 (second Sunday in March)
Hosted at this historic landmark and the oldest structure on the Detroit waterfront, Mariners’ Church has been a place of worship for seamen from around the Great Lakes since 1842. The annual ceremony invites boaters to bring their burgees, colors and pennants to receive blessings for safe passage, calm waters and fair weather on their nautical journeys.
Since 1987 when the memorial was dedicated, waters from the Seven Seas and Great Lakes are ceremoniously poured into outdoor fountains at the memorial with a blessing to protect sailors, ships and crew.
Mount Pleasant, SC
As tribute to the shrimp and fishing industry, the event presents a boat parade, ceremonial blessing of the vessels, shad and shrimp eating contest, art exhibits, food and crafts vendors, and family activities in Charleston Harbor.
Sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce, with blessings from the clergy from St. Paul’s Church and Mother of Sorrows Church, this 34th anniversary event aims to shield from misfortune ships, planes, water taxis and other service-related boats and aircraft.
This festival celebrates the regional shrimp and fishing industry by offering prayer to safeguard local vessels and fishermen. Festivities include a morning boat parade, live music, food trucks, craft vendors, beer garden and other activities along the Wilmington waterfront.
Four days of music, parades, food, dancing, games and more celebrate Portuguese culture and seafaring heritage and offer a blessing by the bishop to decorated boats and their crew.
The local Italian-American fishing community’s annual celebration honors the patron saint of fishermen with a parade, live music, road and boat races, Blessing of the Fleet, children’s activities, mass and a greasy pole contest (costumed contestants try to pull a red flag off the end of a heavily lubricated pole before falling into the water).
Boothbay Harbor, ME
Part of the Windjammer Days Festival, local residents remember those in the maritime industry who lost their lives to the sea and others who still earn their living on the water. The boat parade honors commercial fishing vessels.
Attended by almost 30,000 people annually, this three-day festival includes a parade of boats, 10-mile road race, music, beer tent, food vendors, rides, and more.
Morgan City, LA
August 31 to September 4
To toast the shrimping and oil industry, this huge celebration features boat and street parades, blessing ceremony, a pageant to coronate the festival king and queen, a children’s village, 5k run, art show, carnival rides, fireworks, food and more.
Coltons Point, MD
Near the point where the Arc and Dove ships landed in 1634 carrying Catholic passengers avoiding persecution in England, the blessing of the boats of Southern Maryland’s watermen takes place with festivities such as exhibitions, food and craft vendors, boat rides, music, and fireworks.St. Clement’s Island Museum Blessing of the Fleet Coltons Point, MD October 7-8 Near the point where the Arc and Dove ships landed in 1634 carrying Catholic passengers avoiding persecution in England, the blessing of the boats of Southern Maryland’s watermen takes place with festivities such as exhibitions, food and craft vendors, boat rides, music, and fireworks.