Father Tom Willis, pastor of the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine, offers blessing to the research vessel Desmond Valdes during the annual Palm Sunday ceremony.
For the first time, LAMP participated in St. Augustine’s traditional Blessing of the Fleet ceremony yesterday. This tradition, which once saw hundreds of trawlers decorated with flags gathering in Matanzas Bay in hopes of a bountiful shrimp harvest, has been carried out in St. Augustine since at least 1946, and draws thousands of spectators to St. Augustine every Palm Sunday. This year LAMP’s research vessel Desmond Valdes, with two LAMP archaeologists and two generations of the Valdes family on board, took its place in line and received a blessing along with dozens of other commercial and recreational boats.

The RV Desmond Valdes is LAMP’s primary survey and diving vessel. It was donated to our program by the late Desmond Valdes. We were honored to have several members of the Valdes family on board today for the blessing, including Desmond Valdes Jr., his wife Amy and 2-year old son, and Josh Valdes, Desmond Jr.’s younger brother.
On route to the City Marina for the ceremony, we passed this vessel, the Southern Wind, at anchor in the harbor. She is a medical relief vessel on route to Haiti, operated by the charitable organization Floating Doctors.
Large crowds have gathered on the City Dock to witness the boats passing in single file, each receiving a blessing from the priest who prays “May the peace and blessing of the Almighty God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit descend upon these ships and upon all who shall be in them and remain forever.”
Alas, this year not a single shrimp trawler participated in the Blessing, though one commercial long-liner made its way through the waiting boats before the ceremony towards the working waterfront along the San Sebastian river. Commercial boats were first to be blessed, and this year included the traditional schooner and tour boat Freedom, the not-so-traditional steel pirate ship Black Raven, the local TowBoat U.S. workboat, and our research vessel. Following us were a multitude of recreational fishing and pleasure boats. Amid the crowd on the dock were a variety of clergy, members of the Knights of Columbus, and the St. Augustine Easter Festival “Royal Family” with their entourage. The royal trio are chosen each year to preside over St. Augustine’s Easter ceremonies, representing the ruling family in Spain in 1672, the year construction was begun on the city’s fort, Castillo de San Marcos. This year’s trio, chosen from St. Augustine’s Minorcan and Spanish descendant communities, includes Teresa Tezack as Queen Mariana; Katie Raulerson as Princess Margarita Maria; and Matthew Wood as the young boy King Carlos.
The clergy, Knights, and royal entourage arrived at the waterfront after a procession through the city following mass at the Cathedral. Since we were on the boat we didn’t get any pictures of the procession, but here is a photograph of the procession from the 1947 Blessing.
It was a real honor to participate in such a longstanding religious and maritime tradition. I don’t know if similar fleet blessing ceremonies took place in St. Augustine in previous centuries, though it certainly stands to reason that such traditions would have been brought over by immigrants from Spain and the Mediterranean, where they are widespread. I’ll close by sharing some historic photos from the early years of this tradition, in 1946 and 1947, when the harbor teemed with shrimp trawlers.
The priest offering blessing in the 1946 ceremony.
St. Augustine’s shrimp boats with onlookers watching from the Castillo seawall. The Bridge of Lions is open, stopping road traffic to accommodate the city’s commercial fleet for the 1947 maritime ceremony.
Another view of the 1947 fleet from higher up in the Castillo.
These trawlers in the 1947 Blessing were fully dressed with colorful flags. Similar decorations were seen on some of the 2010 participants, most notably the schooner Freedom. Many other boats displayed palm fronds, a decoration that does not seem to appear in these historic photographs. Our own vessel sported the traditional U.S. Lighthouse Service pennant.
St. Augustine’s harbor crowded with trawlers during the 1947 Blessing.
Decorated shrimpers proceeding past the Castillo under onlooking crowds during the 1947 Blessing of the Fleet.
All black and white photographs courtesy of the Florida Photographic Collection at the State Library and Archives of Florida.