040419_blessing

James Thomas with the Grave Digger, a mainstay in the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Darien. Thomas is this year’s grand marshal.

A walk along the Darien waterfront usually comes with the smell of the marsh and the saltwater river.

During a week in early April, however, the smell of new paint comes through as shrimp boat owners layer gleaming, fresh coats on their vessels and touch up the names on the sterns.

All the work is done for the annual Blessing of the Fleet, a three-day festival that starts Friday and culminates Sunday afternoon as members of the clergy shower holy water onto the boats as they sail up to the U.S. 17 bridge.

The population of Darien increases at least tenfold as 25,000 to 30,000 visitors come downtown over the three days of what could be the largest blessing of the fishing fleet on the eastern seaboard. They don’t come just for the blessing. There’s a classic car show, an art show in a park, a 5-kilometer road race and craft and food booths.

For most, it’s a three-day weekend of activity, but Mandy Harrison, director of the Darien-McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce, calls it her blessing of the fleet season.

“It is my busiest week,’’ she said of her job coordinating all the activities and sponsors and ensuring that everything is in place on time. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

There are two parades: There will be at least 13 boats in the marine parade of vessels Sunday and bands and floats in the annual downtown parade at 10 a.m. Saturday. James Thomas will be in both, in the street parade as the grand marshal and possibly at the helm of a boat during the blessing.

Tuesday, Thomas was in his truck with the heater running while temperatures struggled to get into the 50s at midmorning under a sky the color of old lead. It was too cold to be working on a boat, he said, but most of the shrimp docks had white splattered on them from painting new coats on pilot houses and hulls that gleamed even in the half light.

“I’ve been on a boat since I was about 14,’’ Thomas said. “I didn’t get [an] education.”

But it doesn’t take much education to read a tide chart or figure whether more money came in than was paid out.

“We’ve had good years and bad years, years when you just got by,’’ he said.

The ministers who pronounce the blessings over the boats in April, priests and protestant pastors, typically ask for safe sailing and a bountiful catch. The number of shrimp landing is not the only factor in how good a year is. Fuel prices, black gill disease, weather and government regulation, including mandatory sea turtle excluder and by-catch reduction devices and the opening and closing of waters have all been factors.

Thomas’ first year, may have been his best which may explain his interrupted public education.

After school let out when he finished the seventh grade, he got a job on a shrimp boat that landed a lot of shrimp and some nice paydays.

“Between the seventh and eighth grade, I made $15,000 for three months work,’’ he said. “I sat there in class with a pocket full of money, and I thought,’ I’m making more money than this teacher.’

So before he got his first report card, he dropped out and got back onto the boat. It turned out to be the best three months in what is now 34 years with some interruptions.

He painted airplanes for a while and drove a truck delivering electrical components into Florida.

“I made good money driving a truck, but I hated it from Day 1,’’ he said. “One day I was driving south and the next thing I know, I woke up and the truck was headed north. I guess I fell asleep.”

He didn’t turn around and get back on his way. He drove the truck home, called the owners of the cargo and told them to come get their stuff.

He doesn’t have a boat of his own right now. He sold the 60-foot Twilight last year. A deal to buy another didn’t play out. He has a choice of a couple of boats to captain this season, but hasn’t decided yet.

Boat owners need good captains because none of the other factors matter without a good crew. Even if the shrimp are abundant and the weather is perfect, “You ain’t going to make any money if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

So he works on the boats in an old khaki jacket frayed perfectly into an artistic ode to rough, hard work.

It is a risky business aboard vessels, some of which are seemingly bound together with rusty nails and thick coats of paint. Thomas knows that.

“Ninety percent of your old wooden boats, if they were built in the 70’s, there’s nothing holding them together. The bolts are all rusty, and the nails are all gone,’’ he said.

That said, he’ll stay with it because, “There ain’t nothing like a day on the water.”

The days he, other captains and crews spend on the water make it better for those on the high ground especially during the blessing.

Georgia Southern University conducted a study a few years ago that revealed that the festival brought in $800,000 to $1 million in direct financial benefit to the immediate area, and it’s likely more now, Harrison said.

It’s been a big boost for the Waterfront Wine & Gourmet, said Mike Greenway a partner with Russ Quarterman in the business on the bluff.

“It’s one of the biggest weekends for us. They come in here in droves. It brings a lot of new people,’’ he said.

Some who first came to Darien for the festival have bought homes there, he said.

Before the big public festival that brings the visitors, Darien honors those sea salt of the earth shrimpers earlier in the week with a dinner and, Wednesday night, a worship service at St. Andrews Episcopal.

The service was open to the public as will Sunday’s blessing. It’s free of charge, but there is a $5 admission fee to get into the festival area Friday and Saturday for everyone older than 12.

Art in the Park is from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the car show is Saturday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and the race is at 8 a.m. Saturday.

The Grains of Sand will perform Friday night and The Tams Saturday night on the waterfront stage. The Tams will take an intermission for a fireworks show.

For a complete schedule of events go to blessingofthefleet.com.

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