Three weeks after Hurricane Michael pummeled the Forgotten Coast, the Florida Seafood Festival was not forgotten.
And all things considered, the 55th annual affair was a pretty good year.
After dismal weather greeted the Friday afternoon Blessing of the Fleet, which featured a crew of clergy delivering their blessings from the first few planks of the Andrus Pier, the rest of it ravaged by the Oct. 10 storm, the skies opened that evening and remained sunny the rest of the way.
“It went off as normal,” said John Solomon, the festival president. “Amazingly we had a normal festival. Once the gates opened on Friday and the rain subsided, we had a normal festival.
“Inside those fences people had a chance to escape the tragedy surrounding them because nobody was thinking about it,” he said. “There were people from Gulf and Bay counties who came up to thank us for having the festival, that it gave them a break, that it was nice to have something to do that didn’t revolve around the hurricane.”
He estimated that the total attendance was in the neighborhood of 24,000 people for the two days, “a low to mid normal attendance” which included both paid and non-paid attendance.
“The ride company did better on Saturday than last year,” he said, noting that the nonprofit food vendors reported fairly good sales, with the Franklin County High School Class of 2019 covering its food costs by 4 p.m. Friday.
Solomon said he heard good reports from the Carrabelle Church of God, which offered fresh shucked oysters from Cedar Key, as well as from the FCHS Class of 2020, which had boiled shrimp; the Class of 2021, which featured fish tacos; the Love Center, which served up gumbo; the Apalachicola United Methodist Church, which offered popcorn and snow cones; the ABC School’s fifth and eighth grades, which sold festival t-shirts; and the Apalachicola and Carrabelle Masons, which took admission at the front gates.
At the opening ceremonies Friday afternoon, held from the grandstand that had to be repaired along with the clearing of Battery Park, Solomon shed tears in praising the work of the all-volunteer board of directors.
“It was happy tears, that the festival board got it done,” he said. “As Walt Disney said ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.’ It took a lot of work but it got done, and that speaks volumes of the volunteers’ love of the community.”
Board members include vice-president Tress Dameron, treasurer Christina Collins, secretary Andrea Register, Ted Mosteller (who has been 53 years on the board), Michael Shuler, Carl Whaley, Anthony Croom, Pam Brownell and Danielle Layne.
The festival board drew on county inmates, state inmates from Franklin Correctional Institution, and an Apalachicola city crew of inmates led by Pap Duncan to clear Battery Park. Solomon noted that these crews were not available to help on private property, nor could they interfere with debris removal efforts already under contract.
He said the festival also received help from Duke Energy, the city water department, the county road department and solid waste, as well as advertising support from Visit Florida and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“They paid for a lot of information to go out, they did a lot,” said Solomon.
“We try to take care of our home, which is Battery Park,” noting that the festival has invested in power poles and street lights as well as the information booth.
“You could not tell the park had a Category 4.9 hurricane,” he said.
The traditional opening of the festival at 4 p.m. Friday began with the Blessing of the Fleet, led by the Buddy Boys shrimp boat from 13-Mile Seafood that carried the 2018 Miss Florida Seafood Festival Franklin County High School senior Beyla Walker, and King Retsyo Demetrice Cummings, a longtime seafood house worker.
With Chris Clark playing bagpipes, and Caleb, son of Pastor Scotty Lolley, from Living Waters Assembly of God, and Shirah, daughter of Rev. Themo Patriotis, from the Apalachicola United Methodist Church, carrying the crucifer and wreath, respectively, the clergy stood gingerly on the front of the pier as they offered blessings.
Also appearing with Pastor Donna Gerold, from Trinity Episcopal Church, Pastor Larry Sterling, from Eastpoint Church of God, and Pastors Thomas and Valentina Webb, from Tabernacle of Faith.
“In remembrance of those who have labored on the waters and gone to their rest, we pray,” said Lolley. “Father, guide us safely into the harbors of your love, this day we pray.”
The Friday night of Christian entertainment was highlighted by a performance by LaRue Howard, from Orlando.
Leading the parade Saturday morning as Grand Marshals were the Duke Energy linemen, who received a loud round of applause whenever they passed.
In part due to it being an election year, and in part due to the typical strong support, the parade was a robust one. Solomon said he was particularly pleased that the Bowlegs Krewe from Panama City, the Krewe of St. Andrews, and Springtime Tallahassee all took part.
A strong field of 11 for the oyster shucking contest meant there had to be two flights of contestants. Emerging victorious was Honor Allen, from Hunt’s Oyster Bar in Panama City, who won for third time in five years of competing.
“I felt pretty good. It was a really close race between us all,” he said.
With an adjusted time of 102.46, Allen bested runner-up Brian Clark, from the Oyster Troff in Eustis, with a 118.72, and third place Josh Blevins from Dusty’s in St. Andrew, with a 128.13.
“Ultimately its going to come down to penalties and adjusted time,” said Allen. “There’s no perfect run in competitive oyster shucking. It’s unheard of because every oyster is so different and as you’re working through them you’re going to cut one or have shell on another or have one attached to the shell.
Allen took second at nationals last year, and in 2016 and 2017, went to the world completion in Galway, Ireland, where he placed 13th and fifth, respectively.
In the oyster eating completion, Tallahassee’s Chris Johnson won the men’s division, by eating 10 dozen and four, just ahead of Thomas Gibson of Perry, who ate nine dozen and six, and Charles Simpkins, of Indian Valley, Virginia, who consumed eight dozen and five.
“My girlfriend asked me to do it, it was a last-minute decision,” said Johnson, a south Louisiana native who had never competed before. “I didn’t think I was going to place.”
In the women’s completion, Keira Gibson, from Perry, ate six dozen and 10 to easily defeat her young sister Starla, who downed four dozen and three, and Denise Williams Hall, from Chipley, who consumed three dozen and seven.
“The first time I won I ate more than that, but that’s good for how big they were and how chewy and the shells,” said Keria Gibson, a past champ, from Deal’s Famous Oyster House in Perry. “I could have ate more if it wasn’t for those factors in there.”
The festival was busy all afternoon, with local favorite Southern Flood first taking the stage, followed by Cori & Kelly from Panama City, the Adventures of Annabelle Lyn from Tallahassee, and Tennille Arts, leading up to headliner Maddie & Tae.
The young duet got the crowd on their feet as they played their favorites, including “Girls in a Country Song” “Fly,” and “After the Storm Blows Through,” and introduced several songs from their upcoming second album, including “Friends Don’t.”
The two 25-year-olds were warmly received by the audience, and they returned the favor, repeatedly thanking the crowd and the festival for allowing them to perform in the challenging weeks after the hurricane.