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Blessing of the Fleet Celebrates Historical Coastal Industry

Apr 1 2014

by Anna Ferguson Hall

Every year, in the early days of the spring season, the streets of historic downtown Darienin Coastal Georgia fill with residents and tourists, business owners and excited shoppers, shrimpers and clergy, to celebrate a centuries-old tradition: The Blessing of the Fleet.

The Georgia Coast has long depended on the prosperity of its fisherman and shrimpers to help sustain its economic stability. The produce caught off the Peach State’s waters are as vital to the states heritage and health as are peanuts and cotton. Ensuring that the men and women who takes off from the states shores and wrangle with the waters are protected is imperative to ensuring that the coastline- and overall state- maintain a vigorous heartbeat.

Stretching beyond religious allegiances, the Blessing of the Fleet is a time-honored traditional to recognize the regions fortune in its fisheries, and bring peace of mind that coming years will render bountiful catches.

“The Blessing of the Fleet, it’s just, a magical time for our community,” said Mandy Harrison, executive director of the McIntosh County Chamber of Commerceand organizer of the festival. “If you have never experienced the festival, you’re really missing something special. Seeing from the perspective or an organizer, you really get to experience the whole aspect of the weekend. This is more than a festival. This is a community, coming together, to get behind an industry that has been our backbone for decades.”

To pay homage to this long-standing blessing tradition, the Blessing of the Fleet Festival is held each year in Darien. Every year, crowds of guests, residents and vendors gather along the city’s waterfront, for a multi-day celebration to mark the magnitude of the region’s fishing and shrimping industry. For three straight days, families gather in the historic area of the city to sample shrimp dishes, peruse arts and craft vendors, take in the waves of live music and entertainment, and simply enjoy the natural beauty of springtime in coastal Georgia.

“You can’t come to the festival and not have a good time,” Harrison said. “It’s just not possible.”

A packed schedule is set for this years event, with musicians both local and regionally based heading to Darien. The line-up for 2014 has Couson Sounds opening for David Lane on Friday night, followed by Athens band Kinchafoonee Cowboys headlining.

On Saturday, the stage will be set of local favorite Soul Gravy, followed by Mason Waters and the Groove All-Stars. Vic Waters will jam out for guests following the evening showcase, as fireworks light the sky.

Sunday will see the return of a moving waterfront worship service and gospel sing, followed by the blessing of fleets and boat decorations award ceremony.

Aside from the main festival venue and stage, there are plenty of side entertainment events to keep the weekend schedule rolling. A marching band, local business and community participants flock to the city streets Saturday morning to show off their floats and spiritedly decorated vehicles, waving and tossing candy to spectators lining the city sidewalks. Bring a bag to gather treats and a camera to commemorate the fun.

The parade steps off at 10 am. Saturday, winding down Highway 17 from the Darien Bridge toward Highway 251.

This year, the Blessing Festival will also bring back the fan favorite Art in the Park celebration, presented by the McIntosh Art Association. Dozens of area artists and craft vendor gather in Vernon Square waterfront to show off and sell their wares, ranging from paintings and photography, to jewelry and pottery. In addition to the hand-made fine works, several jazz musicians will play in the background, adding an upbeat spunk to the park-centric event.

The two-day Art in the Park showcase will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Also back this year is the athlete’s showdown: the Blessing 5K. Runners of any experience level are encouraged to join in the action and race through the historic streets of downtown Darien to claim the winning time. Sponsored by the YMCA of McIntosh County, the race requires preregistration, which can be completed online at itsyourrace.com.

Car enthusiasts will have plenty of fun this year at the Festival, as the annual Classic Car Show returns with dozens of antique and classic vehicles in outdoor gallery. This year, the Car Show will be held on Saturday, at the nearby Darien Outlet Mall to offer more space for spectators.

Throughout the weekend, additional children’s and family activities will be held, including a fishing rodeo Saturday afternoon.

Rain or shine, the event is a growing favorite and signature party for the region. Last year, Harrison recalls, she and Wally Orrel, president of the Chamber of Commerce, were standing on the Darien Bridge overpass at the waterfront, as the final boat was blessed. Holding up her hand in a high-five, she and Orr slapped alms and laughed at how successful the event had become.

“A picture of that high-five moment was taken, and I’ll always treasure that moment,” Harrison said. “It says it all. We just looked at each other, and beyond knowing that the festival had been another great success, we knew that the whole community had come together to shine and celebrate. If there was a ever a moment for a high-five, this was it. I can’t wait to give another high-five this year.”

Being held April 11 to 13 this year, the event is expected to bring in between 25,000 and 35,000 visitors, making it by far the most attended event in the city and county, Harrison said.

“Last year, guests from as far away as Montana came and celebrate with us. That says something,” Harrison said. “This is such a special time for us, to celebrate the livelihood that has for so long been the vital commercial and cultural fuel for our area. There is so much to do and so much that goes into it that we start planning pretty much the day after each festival wraps up. We’re really ready to roll. I can’ wait.”

The 2014 Blessing of the Fleet will be held Aril 11 to 13, with an opening worship service held at Wednesday, April 9 at Glory Worship Center. Admission to the festival is $5 for adults, with children under the age of 13 are admitted free of charge. For additional information, visit blessingofthefleet.com.

– By Anna Hall

McIntosh Life/The Darien News

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