Picture-perfect weather, a typical crowd and flawless execution combined to make last weekend’s 54th annual Florida Seafood Festival a fine affair.
“To say in short words it went as smooth as silk,” said John Solomon, president of the festival board. “The weather was beautiful.”
Visitors streamed into town all week long, even through Saturday afternoon, when they were once again advanced bumper-to-bumper on the Gorrie bridge from Eastpoint.
“All in all the festival, the town and the weekend was wonderful,” said Solomon. “I want to again thank all the volunteers and volunteer board of directors , city workers, school classes, the Masons and the many other community members that make this such a great event.”
The festival, as usual, began Friday afternoon with the Blessing of the Fleet on the docks at Ten Foot Hole, led by three local pastors, David Walker, from Covenant Word Christian Church International, Scotty Lolley, from Living Waters Assembly of God, with his son Caleb bearing the cross, and Themo Patriotis, from First United Methodist Church of Apalachicola, with his daughter Shirah carrying the wreath that Lolley would toss into the Apalachicola River.
“In the face of wind and rain, we pray; in the stillness and the calmness of waters, we pray; in respect of the natural resources, we pray, in remembrance of those who have labored on the waters and gone to their rest, we pray,” recited the pastor, as the wreath was tossed.
What was different this year were the prayers themselves, as a q ueue of boats, led by “Buddy’s Boys, with Miss Florida Seafood Brooke Martina, and her brother, Brett Martina, serving as King Retyso, aboard, passed before the pastors’ watchful eyes.
The script had been expanded, beyond the traditional prayer for seafarers.
“We stand here where earth, sea and sky meet and we gather as one people to ask for your blessings in this season of the harvest,” said Patriotis. “Bless the very air we breath and the skies above us. Bless the earth below our feet and waters that surround us.
“Lord we lift up the human community that live and visit Franklin County. Bless the all the people young and old, male and female, people of diverse ethnic origins, races, tribes, clans, families and individuals. Bless their homes neighborhoods, communities, churches, and businesses.
“Lord we lift up the people that come to visit and vacation and recreate here. Bless them and refresh and revive them as they fish, shop, visit, walk the beaches of Franklin County,” he said.
No sooner had bagpiper Chris Clark, now in his 20th year of accompanying the blessing, led the entourage off the dock, that a pair of T-38 Talon jets, from Tyndall Air Force Base, flew overhead to the delight of the crowd to christen the event.
The opening ceremonies continued with Mayor Van Johnson introducing this year’s king and queen to the gathering.
“The city of Apalachicola has been truly blessed by the Creator - with such historic beauty, culture and natural resources. I’m delighted to welcome each of you as we celebrate those blessings together over this beautiful weekend,” he said. “The fact that you are here and so many of you have traveled long distances to be here serves as a reminder to all just how blessed we are and how important this celebration is.”
King Retsyo and Miss Florida Seafood “are descendants of a long lineage of men and women that have made a living from the natural resources of the Apalachicola River and Bay and fought just as hard to protect and preserve those resources for generations to come,” said Johnson.
Friday’s activities were highlighted by a series of performance by local Christian bands, culminating in the featured act, I Am They, brought in for the festival.
Solomon said vendors, including local non-profits who manned food booths as well as several of the organization booths, were pleased. “ The arts and craft vendors were very happy as they reported larger than normal sales,” he said.
Another nice touch was that the carnival company brought in new this year, James Gang Amusements from Andalusia, Alabama, showed an appealing level of class and wholesomeness, for an error-free affair.
Solomon said that after set-up and state inspection, “the guys told me they got on and ride the rides to make sure everything is going like it is supposed to.”
On Saturday morning, following the annual 5K Redfish Run (see next week’s issue), the parade wound down U.S. 98, as it always does, led by the king and queen, and Solomon as grand marshal, followed by everyone from the high school band to the Pam Nobles Dancers, to the library handing out books, to beads and candy tossed from the floats, to local politicians waving to the crowd, even to Larry Joseph walking the route carrying a giant wooden cross.
O’Lear bests Allen for 13th win
The keynote events, the oyster shucking and oyster eating events, got underway at Battery Park at 1 p.m., with suspense building as the newly crowned national champ, Honor Allen, from Panama City’s Hunt’s Oyster Bar, was back to defend his crown.
The 23-year-old, though, faced a tough adversary in 50-year-old Scotty O’Lear, from Sandbar Oyster Bar in Panama City Beach, who was back to try to improve on the dozen wins he’s managed over the years at the festival.
Allen, a speedster, finished slicing open his oysters first in 1:14, but his penalties cost him 15 seconds, enabling O’Lear, who was third in the race to finish, to take home the win because of a perfect arrangement on his bivalves on the tray.
Judges Eddie Moses, Lynn Griner, Dan Davis and Sara Ward determined that O’Lear’s tray deserved bonus points, and as a result he edged out Allen and third place finisher Brian Clark, from Oyster Troff in Eustis.
“It wasn’t the speed, you see how fast he (Allen) was,” said O’Lear. “I knew I couldn’t beat him with speed. I knew (presentation) might be the difference.”
The win gave O’Lear his 13th win in the 30 years he’s competed here, which have led to five national titles.
The oyster eating contest was highlighted by the appearance of a Japanese television personality, Daisuke Miyagawa, who was on hand to film a segment he does for his show “Itte Q,” on Sunday evenings (see related story).
Returning champ Charles Gunter, from Crawfordville, a hearing officer with the state, was on hand to try to beat the record, but he decided that because the oysters weren’t the typical cup oysters from Apalachicola, but huge ones from Louisiana, he wouldn’t go for it.
Instead, he calmly went through 14 dozen and easily bested runner-up Warren Melzer, from Tallahassee, who could only wolf down eight dozen and nine, and third place Thomas Gibson, from Perry, who ate six down and nine.
Taking the women’s division, in her first try at the contest, was Chipley’s Denise Hall, who consumed seven dozen and three in the 15-minute competition.
Hall finished ahead of runner-up Keria Gibson, from Perry, who ate six dozen and three, and third place Sarah Shelley, from Carrabelle, who downed just under six dozen.
Hall said her husband, Port St. Joe’s Tony Hall, who died in April 2016, had long urged her to compete, and so this year she did it in his honor.
“He always wanted me to do this,” she said. “I look forward to practicing for next year.”
Niemann lifts up the queen
After a busy afternoon of blue crab races and shopping with the vendors and taking in the festival, the crowd gathered for the entertainment, begun with three local bands, Southern Flood, Boo Radley and Brian Bowen, opening up.
But then it was time for the featured act, Jerrod Niemann, who was coming off the fresh release of his fourth album.
Niemann delighted the crowd with his country groove, which drew a rousing cheer from the crowd when the stocky singer-songwriter literally pulled up the petite Queen Brooke Martina to the stage to sing a song to her.
“It was the highlight of the night, first time I can ever remember an artist doing that,” said Solomon. “He was a down-to-earth genuine guy. One of our directors was walking through the artist area on Saturday and he took the time to stop her and tell her thank you for the time she was putting into the event.”
The Saturday events wound to a close before 11 p.m., with a tired sigh from all the energy expended.
“Now we start planning for next year’s historic event,” said Solomon. “We’ll see everyone at the 55th annual Florida Seafood Festival Nov. 2-3, 2018.”