A LOOK BACK AT ITS BEGINNINGS
The Blessing of the Fleet is a centuries-old tradition, which began in Mediterranean fishing communities to serve as a benediction for shrimpers in hopes of a prosperous and safe shrimping season. Today, these blessings take place as far away as Australia and now, as close as Mount Pleasant.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Up until 1988, local shrimpers had to travel annually to blessings in Georgia and Florida. Then, most of the blue-collar community either shrimped or worked in the naval shipyard and everyone couldn’t leave town for a formal blessing.
Ann Magwood, one of the original founders of Mount Pleasant’s Blessing of the Fleet, along with her then-husband, a shrimper, decided it was time the town had their own festival. They joined forces with five other shrimping families, and the rest is history.
Magwood couldn’t have imagined how successful it would become.
“I remember those first few years waiting for drinks to go on sale at the store and I’d pile them up in my living room to get ready for the festival,” Magwood says, laughing.
According to newspaper reports, 20 boats were blessed and over a thousand people were present for the very first festival; and all of it, orchestrated by five families.
For the first two years, revenue was mainly driven by T-shirt sales. As the festival’s popularity grew each year, the families knew they needed help, and town officials stepped in, offering to set aside money for promoting tourism. The Town of Mount Pleasant (TOMP) continues to help each year with funding and equipment.
Nicole Harvey, Special Events Manager of the TOMP, serves as the liaison between the planning committee and the town, and the Magwood family continues to play a vital role in coordinating the festival.
In the beginning, the festival was held in the Old Village’s Alhambra Hall Park. Over time, it outgrew this space, and in 2010, the festival moved to Mount Pleasant’s Memorial Waterfront Park, where it’s become bigger and better than ever.
“We started this as something small that we all would enjoy, “Magwood says. “It’s truly turned into something the town is proud of and we are, too.”
Area vendors vie for a spot at the festival, where throughout the course of the day, 20,000 people will visit. Annual revenue generated from the festival goes to one or two beneficiaries. This year, 2017, those beneficiaries include two non-profits organizations; Charleston Port & Seafarers’ Society and East Cooper Meals on Wheels.
“We try to choose non-profits that serve the Mount Pleasant Community. Sometimes we have one, and other years we have two,” Harvey says.
During the festival there’s seafood galore, a shrimp-eating contest, shag contest, live music, and countless crafts. A procession onto the pier followed by a boat parade, leads up to the main event: the blessing ceremony.
Port Chaplain Father Len Williams, who has led the ceremonial blessing for over a decade, blesses the boats as they come right up to the edge of the pier while 50 or so private boats look on from the harbor.
“It never hurts to have a blessing from God when you’re out at sea,” Magwood says.
This year, approximately 10 boats will be blessed, which is perhaps the only thing that has shrank in size since its beginning.
Although there isn’t as many local commercial shrimpers in the area as there once was, it hasn’t slowed down the festival. Mount Pleasant residents are prouder than ever to be a part of something that defines the town’s roots.
“It’s a lot of work for all of us, but when you get there and see how much it means to the captains and the town, it’s just great,” Harvey says.
The 30th Annual Blessing of the Fleet will be April 30, 2017, from 11 AM to 5 PM, at Mt. Pleasant’s Memorial Waterfront Park. Admission is free.