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Crowd pauses during festival to honor commercial fishing

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Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 12:00 pm

MOREHEAD CITY  — About 300 people were in attendance Sunday morning for the Blessing of the Fleet held at the N.C. Port of Morehead City. The event is a part of the N.C. Seafood Festival.

The 15th annual Blessing of the Fleet was held as a church service and blessing of those who continue to work in the commercial fishing industry, despite numerous regulations that restrict their trade. It also is held to remember the commercial fishermen who have died.

This year, the event was held in memory of Robert “Bobby” Morris, who died just over a year ago. Mr. Morris was involved since the conception of the event, providing musical accompaniment.

Numerous speakers and musical soloists spoke fondly of Mr. Morris, a native of Atlantic who taught piano in Beaufort, and had nothing but praise for his involvement with the program. One man said that Mr. Morris is now “singing with the heavenly choir,” and cited his strong faith, in addition to his wonderful music ability.

Elizabeth Salter Ritchey, from Davis, was among those in attendance and said although she has been present for every year, Sunday’s event was one of the best yet.

Ms. Ritchey holds a commercial fishing license herself and called the annual event “bittersweet.” She said that while she is grateful for it, it’s sad to think of those who did so much for the commercial fishing industry and have since passed away.

“We have a lot of things against us, mainly regulations,” Ms. Ritchey said. “But we know that God is in control.” Her words reflected the Blessing of the Fleet’s purpose.

Bleachers and chairs were set up facing the water, and everyone in the audience was fanning themselves with the programs provided. It was a hot and humid morning, as acknowledged by Connie Mason.

“I’d like to welcome the new visitors this year – the gnats,” said Ms. Mason, drawing laughs from those in attendance. “And now I’d like to ask them to go to Wilmington to fill out their visitors cards.”

The Blessing of the Fleet is held to bring together the fishing communities of North Carolina, give thanks for the rich heritage and resources the coastline has to offer, ask for a blessing on the industry and its future, and remember the commercial fishermen who have since passed, according to the program.

The morning began with musical prelude by pianist Tracy Merkley and a Presentation of the Colors by the Havelock High School ROTC

Sammy Brooks, who was the 2012 Chairperson of the N.C. Seafood Festival, led the Pledge of Allegiance and welcoming address.

Ms. Mason and friends then sang “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” dedicating the song to the memory of Mr. Morris.

Ken Turner, chaplin at Carteret General Hospital, led a brief invocation, asking for continued blessing on the commercial fishermen of the state.

More special music was presented, as well as a scripture reading of Matthew 4: 18-22 by Duncan Wheatly, the son of the late Jule Wheatly, who operated Beaufort Fisheries, a commercial menhaden business.

Johnnie Baum, a poet from Hatteras Island, then read his poem “The Watermen.” It spoke on how life on the water is quite different than a typical office job.

After Benny O’Neal, layperson with the Wanchese Assembly of God, read the Blessing of the Fleet Prayer, the wreath was thrown in honor of fishermen everywhere. The families of Jule Wheatly, Mr. Morris and John T. “Buster” Salter gathered at the port’s edge to throw the wreath together.

The boat processional began, with 20 various-sized fishing boats gently passing the crowd, while waving and throwing their own wreaths into the water in honor of past fishermen. During this time, Jerry Schill, the former director of the N.C. Fisheries Association, and Sandra Gaskill with the Carteret County Fisherman’s Association, read aloud the names of the boats and their captains. They then read the names the crew wished to honor.

The tugboat Ft. Macon was the last vessel of the processional, in honor of Jule Wheatly and the menhaden fishery. While floating perpendicular to the crowd, it sounded its horn three times to signal the end of the morning’s event.

Contact Anna Harvey at 252-726-7081, ext 227; email; or follow on Twitter @annaccnt.

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