Throwback Thursday – Blessing the Fleet

A priest (possibly Father John Traynor of St. Therese of Lisieux Church), the model Cheryl Tiegs, and East Hampton Town Supervisor Mary Fallon at the Blessing of the Fleet in what appears to be the late 1970s. This year’s blessings will be bestowed on Sunday, June 9, beginning at 5 p.m. | Carl Darenberg Sr. Collection, Montauk Library Archives

Montauk’s first Blessing of the Fleet – born as the “Blessing of the Boats” – was in 1956 and the brainchild of Vinnie Grimes, a charter boat captain and Navy veteran who’d seen Portuguese tuna fishermen blessing their boats before they headed out to sea on the West Coast.

“It is an old European custom that not only assures the captains of a bountiful season, but is meant to bring them safely home after each venture,” Al Holden wrote in his Montauk Almanac II. In Montauk, after being blessed in Montauk Harbor, the boats head out to Block Island Sound, where some drop floral wreaths in honor of those who passed in the preceding year.

“He knew that most of the fishermen in Montauk couldn’t afford to insure their boats,” Vinnie Grimes’s son Jim said in his father’s obituary in the East Hampton Star. “The next best thing, he figured, was trust in God.”

A Blessing of the Fleet, circa 1950s, photograph by Frank Moss. | Frank and Barbara Borth Collection, Montauk Library Archives
The Marie II at the Blessing of the Fleet in the late 1950s or early 1960s. | Carl Darenberg Sr. Collection, Montauk Library Archives

The somber yet festive Montauk event was a success from the get-go, involving 62 boats in the first year and by 1959 expanding to 150 mostly sportfishing boats. By the early 1960s the blessing was being organized by, in addition to the Holy Name Society of the Little Flower Church, the Long Island Beach Buggy Association. It featured a post-blessing fish fry as well as a clam bake, dancing, and a competition for the title “Queen of the Fleet.”  Before long, too, there were “exuberant” water balloon fights between boaters, as a 2007 DVD documented at the time (out of respect for sea creatures, the battles have been discontinued).

Standing room only on the commercial dock, year unknown. | Albert R. Holden Collection, Montauk Library Archives
The legendary charter captain Frank Mundus’s Cricket II with a crowd on the dock behind it, year unknown. | Albert R. Holden Collection, Montauk Library Archives

Today as before, the Blessing of the Fleet signals the start of a new fishing season – and in general of the summer to come. Not by coincidence: so too do new displays at the library, whose theme this month is … fishing. Come check them out!

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