By Pat Fontana
Every year, fishing families and boat captains gather in Sneads Ferry for a blessing. The Blessing of the Fleet has been an important part of their work and their lives for almost 25 years.
Captain Billy Davis, whose family has been in the fishing industry in this area since 1942, originally approached his pastor about the idea after hearing about similar blessings that were happening up and down the coast. Being a commercial fisherman himself, he was intrigued by these other blessings that were happening in places such as Mt. Pleasant, SC, and Mayport, FL.
Davis says he and his wife, Lisa, spoke with Pastor Sandy Bain at Salem Baptist Church, as he thought “it would be nice to have one here.” He adds that there are “a lot of fishing families in this village.” Since that first event, the blessing has changed a bit over the years but remains meaningful for those involved in the fishing industry in Sneads Ferry.
For Davis and others, the Blessing of the Fleet means “for one day, we don’t go to work. If we do go to work, we make sure we’re in for the blessing.” He adds that on the day of the blessing, “We’re not competing against one another for shrimping grounds. We get together for a common cause.” The event is a “blessing on the boats, the captains, the families of the fishermen, and prayers for a good fishing season.”
During the blessing, the names of those who have passed away are read. Davis says, “we have a lot of names on that list.” They also recognize in honor “certain members that are sick or hurt and can’t shrimp or fish anymore.” Pastor Steve Allen, Senior Pastor at the New River Community Church of God who now oversees the program each year, adds that there is also a “laying of the wreath of flowers in memory of all those who are gone.”
Other than the blessing itself, the reading of the names is the most important aspect of the event. Davis explains that “each person that attends looks forward to hearing that loved one’s name read out. It’s important to people. You never want to feel like your loved ones are forgotten.”
The entire ceremony usually lasts 30-45 minutes. Local pastors recite prayers and scripture readings on the shore, with about 100 people in attendance. The boat captains listen on their radios as they circle their boats on the water. Davis explains that “usually the captain of each boat takes it out for the blessing.” He owns 8 to 10 boats himself and runs one while his captains run the others.
A number of churches have been involved in the ceremony over the years, including New River Community Church of God, Salem Baptist, North Topsail Shore Baptist, Faith Covenant, Pillar Church, Sneads Ferry Pentecostal Church, Sneads Ferry Presbyterian Church, Sneads Ferry Freewill Baptist Church, Folkstone Original Freewill Baptist Church, and the Sneads Ferry United Methodist Church. About five or six pastors usually participate each year.
Davis and Allen agree that the Blessing of the Fleet is important to the fishing community for many reasons. As Allen explains, Sneads Ferry has grown a lot and “fishing has been at the core, but that is changing.” The Blessing of the Fleet participants “appreciate being remembered, respected, and prayed for” each year.
Both Davis and Allen state that “fishermen are superstitious.” Davis adds that “nobody wants to take the chance and not be blessed.” In fact, one year early on they were not able to hold the blessing. Davis says he thought “maybe the community won’t even notice that we don’t do it.” However, he found out very quickly that “they certainly did notice and wanted to know why we didn’t do it.” They’ve not missed a year since, other than 2020 when they were not able to hold it because of the pandemic.
Allen says the event is a “great reminder to all of us on the shore of how we owe and appreciate those fishing families.” The ceremony has undergone some changes throughout the years, but Davis says they do try to keep it small and simple so that it serves its purpose. He adds, it’s “a quiet time for people to come out.” He urges people to “join us, to see the boats out on the river, hear the messages, and enjoy the singing.”
Allen has been involved with the Blessing of the Fleet since 2004, when he moved to the area. He says, “the pastors who were here invited me and it’s been a great joy ever since.” Allen coordinates with other pastors to decide who will do what during the ceremony. He also works with Davis to determine the date each year. As Allen explains, “I plan the program and he (Davis) gets the word out to all the fishing families.”
Davis emphasizes that his entire family helps out with the blessing. His brothers and sisters, parents, and in-laws have all lent a helping hand. He says, “in one way or another, they have always been involved and helped.”
The event, in fact, was held at Davis Seafood in August of 2022 and for the foreseeable future. While it had been previously been held there, for many years the ceremony was held at Fulchers Landing. It returned to Davis Seafood in 2021. Davis explains that, at his family’s fish house, “people can get right on the water or walk out on the dock. The elderly or sick can get under the porch and out of the sun.”
The Blessing of the Fleet has involved as many as 40 boats. Davis says that “when we first started, there were a lot more boats around here.” In the years since, some people have left the fishing business. Last year’s blessing involved about 25-30 boats.
The Blessing of the Fleet is typically held in the fall. August or September, in particular, offer the fishing families involved a little lull between the summer and fall seasons, so it can be the perfect time to take a day off for a blessing. Allen says, “the community is very faithful to show up and show appreciation. This is a community event that is significant for our little village.”
For more information about the blessing of the fleets, contact Captain Billy Davis at Davis Seafood, www.davis-seafood.com.