The Blessing of the Fleet is a centuries-old tradition originating in southern European, predominantly Catholic, fishing communities. A blessing from the local priest was meant to ensure a safe and bountiful season. Two communities in coastal Georgia, Darien and Brunswick, observe this annual tradition.
Brunswick held its first blessing more than sixty years ago when Portuguese immigrants introduced the practice in their new home. The Brunswick Portuguese community was mostly Catholic, and still today the blessing is inextricably tied to the local Catholic church, St. Francis Xavier. The event is held on Mother’s Day as a way of honoring Our Lady of Fatima (the patron saint of Portugal) and mothers in the parish. It begins with a morning mass and the ceremonial”May crowning” of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. After the mass the parishioners parade around Hanover Square, which adjoins the church, led by a Knights of Columbus honor guard and eight men carrying the statue. The base of the statue is decorated with ferns and fresh red and white flowers (red is symbolic of living mothers, white of deceased). An anchor made of red and white flowers is also placed on the statue base.
After the procession the celebration moves to the waterfront. There, shrimp trawlers, freshly painted and decorated with streamers, signs, and American flags (required for the decoration competition), circle the waterfront. In recent years the number of”working” boats and pleasure craft participating in the blessing has averaged about fifteen each. Family and friends of boat owners crowd the decks while spectators watch from the shore.
The priest from St. Francis and the Knights of Columbus honor guard stand aboard one of the boats; the priest sprinkles holy water and blesses each boat as it passes. During the procession the boats are judged on their decorations. Prizes include diesel fuel, supplies and marine equipment, and restaurant coupons. After the blessing the boats move up the East River to St. Simons Sound, where the priest drops the flower anchor overboard in memory of the deceased fishermen of the community.
Darien, just north of Brunswick in McIntosh County, has held an annual blessing since 1970. The blessing is held on the Darien River on a Sunday afternoon each spring, but the date varies. It is scheduled to coincide with a falling tide because a rising tide could drive the boats into the bridge—a reminder that they are always at the mercy of the weather. The celebration in Darien begins early in the week with activities that include an evening prayer service, a fishermen’s fish fry, and a street parade. Local clerics of various denominations stand on the bridge and bless the boats as they pass.
Boat owners spend weeks preparing and decorating their crafts in keeping with the yearly theme (such as”Fisherman’s Pride”) and compete for prizes and trophies. One year an owner decorated his boat as a wooden ship in honor of the Scottish Highlanders who settled the town. Almost anything goes, including a high school band performance or a wedding ceremony on deck. While the tradition has changed over time, it continues to reflect the values of these two fishing communities.