It was a record year for the Florida Seafood Festival, a parade full of politicians that helped to make it one of the longest in memory, and a turnout that exceeded past festivals.

The bridge into Apalachicola was lined with vehicles, and finding a parking space in the city was as tricky as tonging up a boatload full of oysters these days in the bay.

It was, for the estimated 33,000 people that festival officials said passed through the gate, an experience full of excitement, climaxed with a top-notch performance by country star Rodney Atkins and his outstanding band of musicians.

But streaming down the backdrop of the record crowd at the 53rd annual Florida Seafood Festival ran a pair of teardrops that carried with them a somber note,.

On Friday night, a ride malfunction sent about a dozen people to the hospital (see related story A6). And on Saturday, a head-on collision on the St. George Island bridge, took the lives of two people and seriously injured four others, people who only that morning had joined in the revelry and celebration that marks the festival parade every year (See related story page A7).

The festival got off on its traditional devotional note Friday afternoon, with the Blessing of the Fleet, by four clergymen – Pastors Themo Patriotis, Scottie Lolley, Thomas Webb and Charles Morris – and cross bearers Caleb Lolley and Jacob Carroll. Following that Seafood Festival Queen Corie Cates and King Retsyo T.J. Ward triumphantly strolled into the festival grounds.

Apalachicola Mayor Prot Tem Brenda Ash, filling in for Mayor Van Johnson who was in Washington on city business, officially commenced the festivities. A dramatic moment then followed while retired Army Major Gen. Jim Donald was addressing the crowd on behalf of veterans. Timed to coincide was a flyover by two T-38 Talon Air Force jets out of Tyndall Air Force Base that zoomed overhead against the bright blue sky.

A couple fewer non-profit food booths adorned the food court, which included shrimp and corn chowder served up the Franklin County High School freshman class; raw oysters shucked by the Carrabelle Church of God, gumbo provided by the Love Center’s lo country boil by the high school student government; fried mullet served by the First Baptist Christian school; fried oysters and shrimp by the high school’s sophomore class, and jambalaya offered up by the Wewahi8tchka High School wrestling team.

The Apalachicola Bay Charter School’s fifth and eighth grade classes sold t-shirts,; the Masonic lodges of Apalachicola and Carrabelle manned the gates; and CERT teams of emergency response volunteers took people to and from the opening gates.

The non-profit groups also took part in the arts and craft section of the festival. “Arts and crafts was packed as much as food row was Saturday,” said John Solomon, director of the volunteer board of directors that oversees the festival.

The Redfish 5K Run was off and running Saturday morning amidst brisk weather. Franklin County High School regional cross-country qualifier Simon Hodgson won the men’s division in 18:14, while Lauren Davidson was tops among women in 20:55.

The parade on Saturday got off to great start, rolling down U.S. 98 and including all the local and regional candidates except for State Senator Bill Montford, a festival sponsor who was called away at the last minute.

After that it was time for the Oyster Shucking Contest, which was welcomed by the king and queen, and made more dramatic when Cates shucked her own oyster and then downed it.

To no one’s great surprise, National Oyster Shucking Champion Honor Allen, 22, of Panama City, repeated as the state champ, shucking two dozen oysters in 1:48, nearly a minute better than his 2:41 time at last year's festival.

“I felt really good about the timing,” said Allen, who shucks at Hunt’s Oyster Bar. “One of the very fastest times I’ve set yet. The competition was great; I have a lot of respect for them.”

Finishing in 1:57 was Umatilla’s Chris Clark, with his brother, Brian Clark, of Eustis, right behind in 2:11.

The Oyster Eating Competition didn’t come close to the gustatory totals of past years, because competitors said the oysters were so large they couldn’t eat as many.

Winning the women’s competition was Keria Gibson, of Parry, who ate seven dozen and one, while her father, Thomas Gibson, of Perry, ate nine dozen and three to finish third in the men’s competition.

“I love oysters,” said the 130-pound petite Keria, who works with her dad at Deal’s Famous Oyster House. “I used dad’s hot sauce, the best in the world. If they were saltier I could have eaten more.”

Finishing second among women was Judy Smith, of Dothan, who ate six dozen and 10, and third was Carrabelle’s Sarah Shelley, who downed five dozen and 10.

Topping the men’s division was Charles Gunter, of Crawfordville, who consumed 15 dozen and 10, with Barry Bostwick, of Crawfordville, runner-up with 12 dozen.

“They were three times bigger than we had last year. I was going to go for the record, but with that size oyster, there was no way,” said Gunter, a state hearing officer with the Department of Economic Opportunity., who said he ate a pickle earlier that morning.

The Blue Crab Races, held on the hour, were exciting as always. Winners at 1 p.m. were Shelby Metcalf , Port St. Joe; with Reagen Solomon in second and Bryson Brown third, both from Apalachicola. At 2 p.m. the winner was Cortlin Cooper from Apalachicola, with John Mathis from Swannee, Georgia second and Tallahassee’s Lauren Rowell third. At 3 p.m., winner was Gavin Shelley from Carrabelle, followed by Issy Nations from Apalachicola, and Sam Hargis from Panama City.

At 4 p.m., winner was Kylee Hutto from Greenville, followed by Rachel Sanders from Dothan, Alabama and Tyler Baxley from Apalachicola. The final race of the day went to Brody Glover from Panama City Beach, with second to Evie Dellinger from Rogersville, Tennessee, and third to Deshawn Jones from Monticello.

Saturday evening was as classy as Friday’s showcase of Christian music featuring Ardent Worship and The Shepards.

The VonWamps, Boo Radley, The Currys and Clayton Anderson all warmed up for the headliner, Rodney Atkins. His wife, Rose Falcon joined him on stage as a back-up vocalist, and shared a duet with him of her hit song, before Atkins closed with a birthday tribute to country legend Charlie Daniels.