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The UGA research trawler Georgia Bulldog historically serves as the host vessel for clergy who provide a blessing to shrimp boats and pleasure craft for a safe and bountiful season. (Provided photo)

Praying for a good season

By Amy Carter

You won't find many atheists aboard tractors or trawlers.

Faith is as integral to making a successful - or even passable - living at farming and fishing as sufficient water, good soil, warm sunshine, strong seeds, reliable hands, efficient machines, fair winds and following seas.

For the better part of a century, shrimpers in Brunswick have started their season with an appeal to God for bounty and safe passage. The 83rd annual Blessing of the Fleet scheduled for May 8 on the East River will continue a tradition begun by Portuguese immigrants who settled on Georgia's coast in the early 20th century.

Before they arrived, locals had little regard for shrimp.

"My Daddy was born in 1912 and he used to catch them with set nets and figured they were just some kind of bug," said Stewart Sadler, a lifelong shrimper.

Most locals used them for bait, said Matthew Hill, director of the Brunswick Downtown Development Authority, which oversees planning for the Blessing of the Fleet and its associated festival.

"When the Portuguese came to Brunswick, their culture was that the sea provides a lot, so I think the shrimp were kind of overlooked until they came because they were familiar with prawns and things from Europe," Hill said.

Prawns are similar to shrimp but live in fresh or brackish water. Shrimp live in saltwater. Both are crustaceans (shellfish).

Portuguese fishermen would often cook their catch right on the dock, which introduced flavorful wild-caught Georgia shrimp to the community at large. Their annual Blessing of the Fleet ceremony also contributed to locals' familiarity with the catch.

Drawing on their Catholic faith, Portuguese fishermen would ask the parish priest to bless their boats every year. Brunswick's blessing ceremony - said to be the oldest in the nation - was built around the observance of the Procession of Our Lady of Fatima. Since Mother's Day 1938, parishioners from St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church have carried a hand-carved Brazilian Oak statue of the Virgin Mary - adorned with a crown of gold and precious stones - around Hanover Square downtown to commemorate Mary's appearance to three children near Fatima, Portugal, on May 13, 1917.

The procession still occurs on Mother's Day every year, but the Blessing of the Fleet has been moved to the Saturday before, Hill said. An attendant festival featuring food, live music, and arts and crafts, has been added back this year, as well.

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