Fred Todd was 10 in 1973 when he went to North Carolina with his father, Bobby Todd, to pick up a new shrimp boat, the Sundown.
Sunday afternoon, he’ll be aboard the Sundown as grand marshal for Darien’s 50th annual Blessing of the Fleet when the 60-foot boat sails up the Darien River to the U.S. Highway 17 bridge for a sprinkling of holy water and a benediction for full nets and safe passages.
He got aboard the Sundown as a worker in 1981 after finishing school.
“I actually got into shrimping because I wanted to spend more time with my daddy,” he said.
“He was 9 o’clock walking in the door,’’ well past the children’s bedtime, Todd said of his father. “He was back out at 3 or 4 o’clock.”
Through all those years, Fred Todd wanted to be aboard the boat.
“That’s what I’m doing right now; living a childhood dream. All I ever wanted to do was turn the wheel of the Sundown,’’ he said.
The Sundown will be one of at least 18 commercial fishing boats in the blessing this year, the highest number in her eight years at the Darien-McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce, executive director Mandy Harrison said.
The actual blessing was larger in the 1980s and early 1990s, but so was the fleet. Todd recalled that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources issued 1,500 licenses in the 1970s when shrimping was great but now issues only about 240.
If participation in the blessing has dropped, the festival that surrounds it has ballooned. What was once a one-day event started this year on Wednesday with a community worship service. It throttles up this evening with an opening ceremony at the waterfront park with entertainment from the Savannah River Band and local music legend Vic Waters and his friends. Arts, crafts and food vendors are on the streets Friday night, and Saturday is the big festival day with the YMCA’s 5-K road race, an art show, classic car show, a parade and other events. It ends Sunday afternoon when area clergy bless the boats individually.
Harrison said the anchor is still the blessing that some, regardless of the revelry around them, still observe as a somber, spiritual event.
“Even if you’re not a spiritual person, there’s something spiritual about it,’’ she said. “There are some doing it in a very reverent way.”
Cheryl Hargrove sees it the same way. She’s the coastal project manager for the Georgia Department of Economic Development Tourism Division and will be aboard a boat Sunday.
Most communities along Georgia’s 100-mile coast host festivals or other events to recognize their fishing industries including St. Marys’ Rock Shrimp Festival and Brunswick’s own blessing of the fleet on Mother’s Day. Darien’s may not be the oldest, but it is the biggest and Hargrove says 50 years is an enormous milestone because few observances stand that test of time. With the Georgia General Assembly having officially designated U.S. 17 a “Georgia Grown” corridor, there will be an even larger opportunity to focus on the production of fish docks, aquaculture and shrimp trawling, Hargrove said.
Their catch notwithstanding, the boats themselves are favorites of photographers and artists.
“Two years ago, we mentioned photographing the shrimp boats, whether in the morning fog or sitting at the docks, as one of the ways to capture an image of a visit to the coast. They’re icons of the coast,’’ Hargrove said.
The annual blessing is also a chance to recognize the people who continue in the difficult work of netting wild Georgia shrimp for restaurant and family tables.
“It’s a hard life, it’s a hard industry,’’ Hargrove said, “and people continue to do it. Anytime we can pay them respect, we need to do it.”
Of course it’s been hard, Todd said, but shrimping has always provided enough for his family. Good years, however, are often followed by bad years and that makes it hard to put away any money.
He cites 1995 as a great year.
“If anybody didn’t make money in 1995, they didn’t work,’’ he said.
And he didn’t work as much as he wanted. His boat caught fire in the spring and he didn’t get it put back together until August. Still, he caught more shrimp in the remaining months of 1995 than he had all of 1994, he said.
But he did consider getting out in 1990 when catches were low and diesel prices were high.
“We weren’t catching nothing,’’ he said, and he was the captain of the Captain Ross, a boat his father helped him buy.
His father told him to do what was best for his family, that someone would buy the Captain Ross, but Todd said he couldn’t take that chance.
“I couldn’t walk away from my mama and daddy. He gave me an opportunity to work with the Captain Ross,” he said.
Things turned around, and he eventually took over his father’s Sundown which was five feet longer and two feet wider than the Captain Ross.
Fred Todd is what his son, Robert, calls a “third generation shrimper twice” because grandfathers on the Todd side and in his mother’s family, the Sawyers, were both shrimpers since the 1920s. The Gravedigger, a boat that has been a mainstay of the blessing, is a Sawyer boat, Robert Todd said.
Those boats are old but are still around because both families have always believed in good maintenance. That’s why, Fred Todd said, he never worried his boat wouldn’t get him home.
“If you patch up something during the season, you fix it when you’re not fishing,’’ he said.
Robert Todd is not a shrimper. He’s a full time professor of communications at Georgia Southern and is helping with public relations for his father and the festival.
The younger Todd said he would love to be a shrimper, but, “My dad won’t let me. He told me to get into something with a pension.”
The elder Todd said when his son starts collecting his pension, the Sundown will probably still be on the water and, “There’s aways going to be shrimp.”
And they’ll still get their boats blessed, although perhaps not in front of the Sunday afternoon crowds watching from the docks and the bluff.
“If we didn’t go to the blessing, we always took our preacher down to the dock and had him bless our boat,’’ Fred Todd said.
For more information on the blessing call the chamber at 912-437-6684. For a full schedule of events go to www.blessingofthefleet.com.