STONINGTON — The annual Blessing of the Fleet, which takes place this Sunday at the Stonington Town Dock, is a tradition that was running out of steam until a committee from St. Mary Church took it upon themselves to resurrect the event five years ago.
“The local fisherman were doing it before,” organizer Ellie Dunn said. “But it got too big and too expensive, and the group of people organizing it kept getting smaller.”
Finally, the event fell on hard times, she said. “People just weren’t coming out, it was just not sustainable.”
Georgia Crowley, who is Dunn’s cousin, said the intent of the St. Mary group was to bring the event back to its original purpose, which was to remember fishermen who died at sea.
“It’s catching on again,” Crowley said of the event, which started in 1954. “It used to be thousands of people coming out. Now it’s in the hundreds.”
Dunn said one of the main attractions has been there since the beginning: the statue of St. Peter statue from St.Mary's, which is put on a float and moved from the church to the Town Dock.
“He’s a fixture of the blessing,” Dunn said. “The fishermen bought him for the church for the first Blessing of the Fleet.”
“The velvet mill owners would donate velvet for the float,” Dunn said. “The ladies that decorated him wouldn’t let anyone see what they were doing, and it changed every year. They worked really hard and did beautiful work.”
Dunn said that without the support of merchants from the Stonington community, they wouldn’t be able to put on the event. Members of the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society also helped tremendously, she said.
The highlight of the commemoration is when Bishop Michael Cote of the Diocese of Norwich blesses the fishing boats with holy water for God’s protection and a good bounty, but any vessel that puts out to sea can get the blessing. A wreath in remembrance of the dead is also given to the most recent fishing widow.
“The flagship takes the wreath to the wife of the last person lost at sea,” Dunn said.
The Roann, a wooden Eastern-rig dragger originally from Point Judith and now owned by the Mystic Seaport Museum, will join the festival this year. It was designed in 1944 by Albert Condon and built by Newbert & Wallace of Thomaston, Maine. Catching flounder, cod and haddock for 50 years, Roann is one of the last surviving examples of its type, and was restored and relaunched in 2008.
The grand marshal this year is Alan Chaplaski, who was raised on Fishers Island and began lobstering when he was 16 years old, in a 15-foot boat he designed and built himself. At 19 he bought a 1930 Post cruiser that transported him from Fishers Island to Mitchell College in New London, and he continued his education at the University of Rhode Island, where he received a two-year fishing degree in 1972.
In 1978 Chaplaski bought the Black Whale with partner Skipp Ladd, a 52-foot shrimper built in 1949, and later bought Pocahontas, a 72-foot trawler. He also was the skipper of the Cirrus, out of Greenport, Long Island, but in the early '90s he decided to go out on his own again.
In 1992, he bought the Neptune, a 1967 80-foot Eastern-rig trawler, traveling up to 12 hours to the fishing grounds of south Montauk catching fluke, whiting and squid. In 1997 he was the last fisherman to go after the royal red shrimp.
The commemoration begins with Mass at St. Mary Church at 95 Main St. at 10:30 a.m. followed by the blessing of the fleet and a procession through town that starts at the Town Dock at noon. Food and beverages will also be offered at the Town Dock, and music will be provided by The Country Misfits.