Blessed Day

'I love shrimp. I can eat ‘em all day long,' said Michael Sawyer who celebrates Sunday with volunteer Melissa Magwood (right) after he won the shrimp eating contest at the Blessing of the Fleet and Seafood Festival at Memorial Waterfront Park. It had been

Wade Spees

MOUNT PLEASANT -- The rescheduled 23rd annual Blessing of the Fleet & Seafood Festival took off Sunday under hot, sunny skies with the realization that local shrimping could soon benefit from the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

Some shrimpers said they expect their shrimp-industry cousins in the gulf to face tough times ahead -- possibly for decades to come-- if the spreading oil slick causes an environmental nightmare across the area's fragile food chain.

But they also know the gulf's loss could be their gain when the South Carolina commercial shrimp season starts in the coming weeks, and demand spikes on the East Coast.

"I hope it's going to help our prices," shrimp boat owner Joe Ackermann said.

Others from the industry said they couldn't wait to get on the water, largely because their wallets have become thin.

"I have to go clamming just to pay the fuel bill," said Capt. Wayne Pye of the boat Shrimp Shadow.

As many as 10,000 people showed up for the festival at the town's Memorial Waterfront Park. The event had originally been scheduled for April 25 but was bumped because of the threat of bad weather. The annual parade of boats was not held because officials already held a private blessing last month. Instead, there was a memorial and wreath blessing ceremony to honor the seafaring lives lost in the last year.

One of the biggest advantages of moving the event to the park was that the shadow cast by the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge provided cool shade for hundreds who ate, drank and shopped for crafts.

Two of the attendees included Michael and Anita Jefferson, who were celebrating their seventh wedding anniversary. "We're just trying to buy local," he said of the event, adding that they expected to spend about $50 during the day. "I'm going to try to eat all I can," he said.

Some of the vendors were disappointed at the turnout. Wayne Sims, director of catering for Gilligan's, said that previous festivals brought in up to 13,000 people, so he didn't expect nearly as much money.

Still, there were some light moments, especially surrounding the shrimp-eating contest. Competitors had to peel and eat about 25 shrimp, with the fastest eater declared the winner. Michael Sawyer of Mount Pleasant finished first, closing in under four minutes. His secret?

"Just keep chewing, chewing and swallowing," he said, warning that "if you take 'em down whole, you're going to regurgitate 'em."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.com.