A Shelter Island pastor once stood on a hill above Coecles Harbor, the calm blue water below dotted by boats of all shapes and sizes, and he spoke about a lantern. Every side of this lantern, however many sides it had, was a different color of glass, each representing a different religion, a distinct spiritual belief. The light in the middle of that lantern, he said, was God, and came out in whatever particular hue that spoke to or moved an individual.
He was not talking about boats or fishing specifically, but the nautical backdrop underscored his view about the power of faith. And when you set foot on the deck of a boat, some level of faith matters, in whatever form it takes, spiritual or secular.
Stand at almost any dock on the East End and watch the boats heading out, and you become part of a ritual going back generations, centuries. Even if you know not a single person onboard, the sense of hope and wonder at the unknown awaiting them is undeniable. It starts with some clambering, to be sure, but at a certain distance, the rumble of an engine or the clanging of rigging fades, and all you are left with is an image disappearing toward
Their destinations may be mostly unknown to onlookers, but each ventures out with a singular shared intention. Even when they are docked, or anchored off-shore, there is the hope, the belief, that they will all be returning to port.
For some 40 years before the pastor gave that homily, and for more than 20 years since, men and women aboard boats just like those bobbing in the harbor that day on Shelter Island have come together to draw upon faith’s power. They gather in Lake Montauk on the second Sunday of June, yachts and sailboats, commercial fishing boats belonging to baymen with family lineages going back centuries, flashy powerboats owned by weekend visitors. They come for the light of a beacon to help bring them safely home.
This is the Blessing of the Fleet.
It is a celebration practiced at The End since 1955, when local Vinnie Grimes brought back a tradition he had witnessed while in the service and stationed overseas in Europe. There is no single religious affiliation represented, but rather a gathering of various faiths and spiritual leaders. The event has welcomed rabbis and reverends, pastors and priests, all standing side-by-side and offering blessings to the promenade of boats, often hundreds of them, gliding by.
If you’ve attended over the years, you know the decidedly Montauk feel in the salt air. A cacophony of voices and emotions fill the town dock and the decks of the vessels. It is a day of many tears and much laughter, eulogies to those lost to the past and toasts to a safe season of fishing and boating to come. Maybe you’ve spotted Billy Joel there with his boat, or one of the Viking Fleet charters that you’ve climbed aboard yourself. It is a sight to behold, strings of maritime flags flying and Jolly Rogers whipping in the wind, brightly colored buoys and attendees of all ages and creeds crowding the decks.
Blessings bestowed, the boats head to the bell buoy and out into Block Island Sound. Solemnity follows, and the laying of remembrance wreaths begins. Beautiful arrangements in red and white and blue and green are placed overboard in honor of friends and loved ones who have lost their lives in this past year, captains and mates and others who have made their livings and lived their lives on the Sound and sea. The surface becomes an endlessly flowing tapestry of color as the current takes them further and further into the distance, and the boats return home with the faith that they will take to these waters another day.
The annual Blessing of the Fleet is Sunday, June 9, from 5–7 p.m. at Town Dock, Montauk Harbor.