Not having been raised on the bayou, way down here in lower Terrebonne Parish, none of the traditions were familiar to me when I arrived in 1978. Not the least of which was an event called simply “the boat blessing”. Why in the world would folks need their boats blessed?
The first boat blessing I experienced was on a ski boat back in 1980 with The Captain and some of his friends. Still a little confused about why a ski boat would need to be blessed, I went along for the ride.
Once Capt. Maurin picked us up on the bank of Bayou Grand Caillou, we hadn’t traveled very far when I noticed all the huge double-rigger shrimp boats decorated with brightly-colored flags, loaded down with families, and music blaring from their decks.
Some of the families were grilling on the boats, while others were boiling seafood. It was an amazing sight to behold. Along the banks, people were having their own celebrations, cookouts, and seafood boils. Many of them had their chairs lined up along the bayou bank waiting for what was to come.
The “lead boat” carries the local priest, who stands on the bow, ready with the Holy Water with which to bless each shrimp boat as it passes, asking God to bless the family with a bountiful harvest and protection throughout the season.
After the lead boat passes, the other boats fall behind, and the huge boat parade proceeds down the bayou, with the rest of small boats of all kinds, shapes, and sizes, decorated or not, following along, too.
All the boats then head down the bayou to Lake Boudreaux, where everyone anchors and continues to party for the rest of the day.
Folks talk a lot about Cajuns and how they party, but many of these shrimpers are Houma Indians, and sure enough, those festivities would have given any Cajun party goers a run for their money. One doesn’t often associate beer-drinking and such gaiety with a religious event, but down the bayou, it seems the two often go hand in hand.
I was reminded of those first boat blessings I took part in as I watched the Chauvin blessing of the fleet recently. This community would also end their boat parade in Lake Boudreaux, where they would continue their grand celebration.
The annual spring Blessing of the Fleet has been taking place for many years. However, each bayou has put their own personal spin on the event. Some of the bayous, like Bayou Petit Caillou, promote theme decorations and hold a contest for the best-decorated boat. Competition is stiff for prizes like free fuel for the first trip of the shrimp season.
With the “May season” rapidly approaching, the blessing is just the first of many preparations for a good season. Shrimp boats of all sizes, now properly blessed, are being readied for the beginning of the “brown shrimp” season which starts in May. It’s time to mend the nets, patch the cracks, spruce up the paint, and fill the pantry.
The Louisiana brown inshore shrimp season typically runs from May through July, when the shrimpers take about a month off while waiting for the white shrimp season, called the “August season”. This white inshore season runs usually through December.
Adults of both the brown and white shrimp species are available for harvest throughout most of the year in “offshore” Gulf of Mexico waters, which means anything past three miles from the shoreline. Those deep waters are where the big double riggers fish throughout the year. Because the boats are larger, they carry more ice and supplies, thereby allowing the crew to stay out weeks at a time, rather than days at a time like the smaller inshore boats.
So, it’s coming up on shrimp time, my friends. And no one can be happier about that fact than The Captain. Since he doesn’t eat chicken, pork, and only very little beef, shrimp is a staple food at our house. There seemed to be a shortage last year, and I cooked the last pack of shrimp months ago. Even though shrimp from the deep waters of the Gulf can be purchased at local markets year round, it just pains me to do so, because that’s what poor city folks do!
Those of us who live in fishing communities are spoiled by the blessing of being able to purchase fresh shrimp right off our neighbors’ boats. But truth be told, many of them never bounced back from the 2010 post-oil-spill season when they couldn’t pay their boat notes and lost their boats or had to sell out because they couldn’t afford the fuel to even attempt to make a trip once the inshore waters were re-opened.
Others have been duly compensated, and as such, they’ve just quit shrimping because they got paid so much they didn’t need to. So, the boats sit idle with “FOR SALE” signs taped to the cabin windows.
It pains me to write of such sad truths, but it seems one thing after another is eroding away at our culture and way of life. It’s not enough that the coastline is disappearing before our very eyes, but the everyday fisherman cannot control those things any more than he can control the tides.
The tides continue their ebb and flow just as we continue our ebb and flow of life in the Louisiana wetlands. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries announced today that opening day for this area is 6 a.m. May 13th! I can’t wait for the May season and ask you to join me in praying for a bountiful harvest for my neighbors as they prepare for opening day–an event I hope to report on with great alacrity and fantastic photos!