Blessing of the Fleet to celebrate anniversary

Jonathan Robinson and Janice Smith walk a wreath to the water during the first Blessing of the Fleet ceremony in 1997. This year's ceremony marks the 20th anniversary, and it will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday at the N.C. Port of Morehead City. (Francis Eubanks photo)


This year, on the final day of the N.C. Seafood Festival, fishermen and their families will be honored during the annual Blessing of the Fleet.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the ceremony, and it will take place at 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 8, at the N.C. Port of Morehead City, at 113 Arendell St.

The annual ceremony shows the importance of the fishing industry for fishermen in the county.

Karen Amspacher, one of the event coordinators, said the ceremony shows the close relationship between the attendees and those who depend on commercial fishing for their living. “It is evident how this industry (and its struggles) encompasses entire families and communities,” Ms. Amspacher said. “Seeing the faces on those boats makes this a very personal experience.”

Listed below is information on the first Blessing of the Fleet ceremony, held 20 years ago:


The first Blessing of the Fleet

The first Blessing of the Fleet ceremony took place Oct. 5, 1997.

Janice Smith, wife of seafood dealer Billy Smith and staunch fisheries advocate, had a vision. She had attended several Blessing of the Fleets, particularly one held in Pamlico County, and after a few years of having a brief recognition at the civic center, she approached Ms. Amspacher, who was serving on the N.C. Seafood Festival board, about attending a meeting of the Carteret County Fisherman’s Association to see if enough interest was there to hold a Blessing in Carteret County.

At the same time, Ms. Amspacher was talking with Rick Heal and Bill Coulter, N.C. Seafood Festival co-chairmen, as well as others on the seafood festival board, particularly Doug Campen, who was the chief of security at the N.C. Port of Morehead City, in order to find a site big enough and water deep enough for boats of all sizes to participate.

The fall and winter of 1995 and 1996 were especially tough on the commercial fishing family of Carteret County, with the loss of Mr. Smith and his grandson-in-law Kevin Daniels (Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s son William Ellis had died just prior to that tragedy) and Manly Gaskill with his cousin David Bret Gaskill who had also died in an accident at sea.

At the same time, a moratorium on commercial fishing licenses had been enacted and a steering committee had initiated what became the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997. Times were uncertain and frightening for commercial fishermen.

In the end, the 1997 N.C. Seafood Festival Board decided to support a new event, the Blessing of the Fleet and had its first sponsor: The Carteret-Craven Electric Membership Cooperative (which has been a sponsor for 20 years.)

Doug Campen and the N.C. State Port at Morehead City agreed to provide the place with staff support for parking, set up and a rain site if needed.  The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Marine Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary at Fort Macon agreed to provide the escort for the boat parade. 

The County Fisherman’s Association agreed to organize and provide the leadership and support for the service. The N.C. Seafood Festival agreed to provide the sound system, crew to man it and other support as needed.

The program book was paid for by sponsors Safrit’s, Otway Hardware, Harris Net Shop, Jarrett Bay Boatworks, Huntley’s, Gaskill’s True Value Hardware, Chadwick’s Tire, Carolina Atlantic Fisheries and Wachovia – Sea Level and Harkers Island.

A Blessing of the Fleet Committee was formed and included Mrs. Smith, Sandra Gaskill and Pam Morris of the County Fisherman’s Association and Ms. Amspacher of the N.C. Seafood Festival Board.

Many meetings were held in which it was decided in addition to a boat parade with memorials to be called out for each boat, the service would include a welcome, music, poetry, scripture and responsive readings, prayer and a community choir would be organized.

The first choir director was Gary Davis of Marshallberg United Methodist Church. It was decided to make biodegradable wreaths to toss off the boats and a large wreath for a ceremony honoring all commercial fishermen and have a listing in the book with names of deceased commercial fishermen from all over North Carolina.

Ms. Gaskill organized the boat parade. Ms. Amspacher coordinated with the port and the seafood festival board and made the trial run for the boat parade on the William H. Smith. Mrs. Smith organized the deceased commercial fisherman and women’s list for the book.

Participants in the first Blessing of the Fleet were the East Carteret High School Brass Ensemble, Mr. Heal and Mr. Coulter, Jonathan Robinson, president of the Carteret County Fishermen’s Association, singer Connie Mason, the Rev. Tommy Wilcockson of Smyrna Missionary Baptist Church, Staci Robinson, the music group The Nelsons, poet Gary Culpepper, the Rev. John Privott, formerly of Atlantic First Baptist Church, Jerry Schill, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association, Robert Morris pianist, Ruth Paylor, pianist, and Gary Davis, choir director for the community choir, and a musical recording of the Menhaden Chanteymen.

Skeeter Saunders was captain of the lead boat William H. Smith in the boat parade. The service closed with the blowing the fog horn of the menhaden boat Coastal Mariner.


This year’s ceremony

Fishermen spend long, hard days on the water providing a living for their families, and the ceremony draws attention to the work that these men and women provide for their community.

The seafood industry has a major impact on North Carolina’s economy. Recognizing that importance, the N.C. Seafood Festival promotes the positive social and economic impact of the seafood industry.

The ceremony this year honors the fishermen by starting with a musical prelude by pianist Tracy Merkley, the presentation of colors by the Havelock High School ROTC and the Pledge of Allegiance led by Tim Necaise, this year’s N.C. Seafood Festival Chairman.

Mr. Robinson, with the County Fisherman’s Association, will give words of appreciation. Following the call to worship by Ms. Mason and Deborah Booth, Gerry Smith, of First Baptist Church in Morehead City, will offer the invocation.

The retired Rev. Jim Tosto, will lead this year’s Blessing of the Fleet message and prayer.

The event will also include a scripture reading by Staci Robinson Rhinehardt, a daughter of a commercial fisherman, music by the men’s choir of First Baptist Church in Davis and the reading of “The Shrimp Boat” by Bill Hitchcock of Refining Truth Ministries.

After the Blessing of the Fleet message and prayer, families of fishermen will participate in the throwing of the wreath into the watermen for fishermen everywhere.

The families of Mike Tosto and James Barrie Gaskill will be honored during this year’s ceremony.

The ceremony also includes a boat processional with memorials read by Bradley Styron and Sandra Gaskill, both with the County Fisherman’s Association.

In conclusion, Ms. Merkley will perform a selection of “Hymns of the Sea” in memory of the late Mr. Morris, pianist and composer, an Atlantic native who resided in Beaufort.

The recorded closing hymn, “Remember Me,” performed by the Menhaden Chantymen, will precede the blowing of the horn from the M/V Grace Moran, with Capt. Don Thomas, to signify the end of the service.

Parking is free at the port. The service is along the south-facing dock.

For those who are not able to make the ceremony, it will be aired on WTKF 107.3.


The history of the first Blessing of the Fleet was provided by Pam Morris.

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