Commercial fisherman Kenny Rustick discusses the importance of the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony, which is set for 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 6. (Dylan Ray photo)

A popular part of the N.C. Seafood Festival is remembering and recognition of the commercial fishing industry. The Blessing of the Fleet ceremony honors those who work on the water.

This year marks the 21st annual ceremony, sponsored by the Carteret County Fisherman’s Association and the N.C. State Port of Morehead City.

It will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 6 at the port, rain or shine.

Kenny Rustick has been a commercial fisherman since he was a small child, fishing with members of his family.

He became a full-time fisherman in 1985 and understands what the ceremony means to the fishing community.

“It’s got a lot of meaning. It’s a time of year that the fishermen and their families come together and the communities all come together to memorialize the ones that’ve left us,” he said.  “People that’ve died in the water, working it and everything or fishermen that died of old age … that’s basically what its about and after last year…me and my friend, Will Grant, we almost had our names added to the list.”

Mr. Rustick and Mr. Grant were fishing aboard the Mad Lady II last July when the vessel overturned in Pamlico Sound. The men were lost at sea for 14 hours.

“We turned her over somewhere around 4:30 in the afternoon and they found the boat at 6:30 the next morning and they found us at 7:30 (a.m.),” Mr. Rustick said. “We were 7 miles from the boat.”

The problem stemmed from a broken stabilizer. The rope on the stabilizer became entangled in the port side trawl board.

“We were still going OK, it just wasn’t stable as it should have been,” Mr. Rustick said. “We were still going, and little did I know she was taking on water through two bilge pump holes.”

As the day went on, the weather became worse, and the Mad Lady II took on more water.

“It didn’t feel right,” Mr. Rustick said. “I said, ‘We are going to lose her. We are going to turn over. Get out.’ It wasn’t like you see in the movies. I didn’t get a whole lot of air.

“Will…I don’t even know how he got out. I got out the side window of the cabin. I almost didn’t get it open because of the pressure. I finally did and when I came up I needed some air really bad. I was struggling,” Mr. Rustick continued.

The men were able to get through the night by holding on to a cooler and a fish box lid.

When they were finally found, both men were severely dehydrated and suffered from Rhabdomyolysis, a condition that occurs when muscles are overexerted, according to Mr. Rustick.

“They said if we wouldn’t have (gone) to the hospital, we would have had liver failure,” Mr. Rustick said.

In all, he said the experience taught him valuable life lessons and makes the Blessing of the Fleet more important to him this year.

“The Blessing is really, really important to the commercial fishing industry,” he said. “It gives us notification and our forefathers that fished and everything…my grandfather was a commercial fisherman, a bunch of my family that’s still alive, they were in commercial fishing. It does hit your heart. They have a really good ceremony.”

The first ceremony was held Oct. 5, 1997.  

The Blessing of the Fleet is a non-denominational religious service with a purpose of thanking the commercial fishing industry through prayer, music, scripture, poetry, responsive readings, a morning message and a commercial fishing vessel processional with memorials for the fishermen who have died.

The event also aims to educate the public about local heritage, commercial fishing families and the contribution commercial fishing has made and continues to make on the local economy and traditions of coastal North Carolina.

WTKF 107.3 FM will broadcast live at the ceremony, starting at approximately 9:30 a.m.

Participating clergy and laypersons in this year’s event are the Rev. Ricky Rose, Jerry Gaskill and Jess Hawkins.

Special music will be provided by the Davis First Baptist Church Men’s Choir, accompanied by pianist Tracy Merkley.

Lucas Scadden, grandson of a commercial fisherman, will present the scripture reading. Contributor Louie Piner will also do a reading.

After the ceremony will be the boat processional.

Bradley Styron and Sandra Gaskill, with the Carteret County Fisherman’s Association, will call the names of the boats and memorials during the boat processional. The processional is limited to captains holding a current standard commercial fishing license and commercially licensed vessels.

To enter the boat parade, participants must contact Ms. Gaskill at 252-728-2089 or 252-342-4089 prior to the day of the ceremony or they will not be considered part of the processional.

A free booklet, provided by the N.C. Seafood Festival, will be available to the public at the Blessing with all the particulars of the service.

It includes a remembrance list of deceased fishermen, fish house workers and others involved in the fishing industry.

Sponsors for the event are Carteret County Fishermen’s Association, Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative, N.C. Department of Agriculture Seafood Division, the Carteret County News-Times and WTKF Radio.

In case of inclement weather, the event will go on and be held in a warehouse at the port. If the weather is bad, boat captains should call Ms. Gaskill prior to 6 a.m. Sunday.

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