At the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Reedville, Va., local clergy and citizens sing, pray and celebrate the Bay’s menhaden fleet as it prepares for a new season of fishing.
On the first Sunday this month, a small but enthusiastic crowd of people will stand on an oyster shell lot by Cockrell Creek and sing hymns of hope and sadness, praise and humility. The electric piano will sound a little thin in the rich spring air, but the people’s confident voices will carry the words upward. And then another menhaden fleet will slip its lines and head into the Chesapeake and the Atlantic, the fishermen warmed and comforted by this Blessing of the Fleet. It’s an annual tradition in Reedville, Va., where fishermen have been setting out every spring since Captain Elijah Reed arrived in 1874.
Last year, about 150 people popped open lawn chairs or stood patiently on the point of land jutting into Cockrell Creek. Due south, the Bay flickered in the distance, and overhead ospreys and gulls wheeled and soared. Tied up alongside was the Omega Protein gray ship Kimberly, a descendant of the wooden schooners that once sought menhaden - the fish that made Reedville famous, and rich. A variety of local boats lay at anchor around the point as the Elva C, from the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, arrived to the sound of bagpipes. Dignitaries disembarked, walking to a dock-like platform decorated with an American flag, a purse net and a set of oyster tongs. Among them were nine pastors from local congregations; state Senator John H. Chichester, president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate; the Northern Neck Chantey Singers, and members of the Deihl family, who represented five generations of fishing.
“This is my father’s world,” the people sang, their voices strangely sweet and vulnerable under the blue sky, “and to my listening ears, all nature sings and ‘round me rings the music of the spheres.”
Reverend Gayl Fowler prayed for nets so full they could barely be lifted, “that our families will be well fed and kept for this year.” Reverend Donna McEwan praised the work of those who mend and make the nets, while Reverend John Houghton blessed the ships. “On a day like this it is hard to imagine frightening weather,” he said. “Bless those who travel to distant places to cast their nets on the water.” Bucky, Teeny, Henry and Jimmy Deihl cast a wreath onto the water in memory of those lost at sea, while bagpiper David Hershiser played “Amazing Grace.” The service ended exuberantly as the people sang the national anthem, the anchored boats blew their horns as the last notes faded, and seven spotter planes from Omega Protein, led by Chief Pilot Jake Haynie, zoomed over the gathering.
This year’s Blessing of the Fleet is scheduled for 5 p.m. on May 4. For more information contact the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum at 804-453-6529.