Thousands attend Blessing of the Fleet

A procession of shrimp boats made their way down Jeremy Creek as well-wishers gathered on its banks and docks for the 34th Annual Lowcountry Shrimp Festival & Blessing of the Fleet in McClellanville today.

McClellanville - Shrimp trawlers strutted down Jeremy Creek Saturday to the cheering of an enthusiastic crowd -- the largest in the Lowcountry Shrimp Festival and Blessing of the Fleet's 34 years.

It was a sight to see for the parents and staff of Archibald Rutledge Academy who organized the event. Just a few months ago they thought their biggest fundraiser wouldn't float.

Standing at the end of a pier, Rev. Jenny Oldrich sprinkled holy water as each boat passed. Her cloaks billowed in the wind as she asked the Lord to keep the captain and crew safe and to provide a bountiful harvest.

"The men and women who captain and crew these ships put their lives on the line to bring food to us," Oldrich of St. James-Santee Episcopal Chapel of Ease said afterward. "It's a blessing to be able to ask God's protection for them."

On the creek bank people purchased shrimp -- fried, boiled, in frogmore stew, and on kebabs glistening on the grill.

Shrimp is the main reason Karen Newton of Pawley's Island has been coming to the festival for more than 30 years. She also enjoys the social aspect, reconnecting with some of the same people year after year.

"You've got to come to the shrimp festival," Newton says. "It's a tradition."

Michelle McClellan, co-chair of the festival's planning committee, estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 people attended this year's event, making it the largest ever. This festival also had more arts and crafts vendors than in the past. After reaching 60, the festival turned some away.

The event almost didn't happen after Archibald Rutledge Academy lost half of its student body last year due to the economy, said McClellan, who is also the private school's administrative assistant. That caused concerns about having enough manpower for the festival, since parents and school staff typically do everything from reserving porta potties to peeling, cooking and serving shrimp.

But then about 50 residents of this Spanish-moss-draped town volunteered to help.

Money raised at the event goes toward the school's operating costs, which keeps tuition one of the lowest in the state, McClellan said.

Jimmy Scott, captain of the Mary Margaret and a resident of McClellanville, has participated in the festival every year since it began in 1977. He says he does it to support the school.

The gray-bearded shrimper said whether or not the blessing has helped depends on one's faith.

Still, he's been shrimping with the same 68-foot St. Augustine trawler since he built her in 1973, with no close calls at sea.

His biggest concerns for this year's shrimp season are the price of shrimp and the price of fuel.

"It's kind of frustrating, the last four or five years, cause it really is tough to make a dollar out of it now," Scott said. "I don't know if I'd recommend it to a young person, but it's been a good life for me."

Reach Kristen Hankla at 937-5548 or khankla@postandcourier.com.