- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010

CHALMETTE, La.

The blessing of the boats is normally a joyous kickoff to the spring fishing season in St. Bernard Parish, but this year’s affair had more the air of a wake.

Some years, as many as 200 craft, most of them working boats, lined up at the Gulf Outlet Marina to be sprinkled with holy water by a waiting priest. On Sunday, only four boats — and not one commercial vessel — floated by for the blessing.

“As far as the blessing goes, I find that there’s not that much pride in it anymore or that much zest for it,” said Tony Cuccia, 46, who was pulling his 18-foot flatboat out of the water and taking it down the road to sign up for cleanup duty on the massive BP oil spill.

“Years ago, when I was coming up, this was the thing. This was your playtime before you started really working, 12, 14, 15 [hours a day], whatever it took,” he said as his son, 19-year-old Tony III, lashed the boat to a trailer. “People are so dogged down by the economy and by different things we have to overcome that playtime really isn’t an option.”

Sunday’s party was held as the federal government announced that it was closing a large swath of the Gulf of Mexico, from Louisiana to western Florida, to all commercial and charter fishing.

The marina tried to maintain a festive atmosphere despite a steady drizzling rain. A few dozen people milled around sipping drinks as a woman played New Orleans native Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” on a keyboard.

But a deepening pall seemed to hang over the gathering.

Fleet captain Doogie Robin, 84, sat at the bar, sipping a Budweiser from the jaws of an alligator-head beer cozy. Mr. Robin runs eight oyster boats, ranging in length from 45 to 70 feet, out of Yscloskey at the far end of the parish.

“Katrina really hit us hard,” he said. “And this here, I think this is going to finish us now. I think this will wipe us off the map.”

Marina manager Joe Medina said the weather and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kept away many people. He said many of the fishermen were off working to lay boom around the oil slick, hoping to keep it away from the marshlands where the fish upon which they depend breed.

“We used to have 125 boats before Katrina,” he said. “We had 47 last year.”

Mr. Medina knew turnout would be light this year, but he also knew the blessing would be more important now than ever.

On a deck outside the bar, the Rev. Luke Nguyen of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church poured water from a hose into a tin bucket. Then he said words over it to convert it into holy water.

The first boat to pull up for a blessing was a 32-foot Wellcraft pleasure boat christened “Casino.”

Among the people standing at the stern was U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, who said he and other members of the delegation were looking into how best to tap into a $1 billion oil-industry trust fund set up after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

“We have no idea yet what the reasonable call on that trust fund is going to be,” he said.

Mr. Vitter empathizes with fishermen’s frustration over the closing of their grounds but said the move was necessary.

“I do think we need to get the message out that any product we put out there on shelves is safe. We don’t want hysteria to take over and hysteria to hurt the industry even more than the oil is,” he said. “So I think we’re being ultra cautious. … So given that caution, the American consumer can know that anything on the store shelf, anything in restaurants is safe.”

“God bless you,” the priest clad in pristine white vestments shouted as he doused the boat — and Mr. Vitter — three times with water from a plastic oyster tub.

Before it was over, Father Nguyen had blessed a fiberglass flatboat, a 20-foot Trophy Bayliner and a tiny “pirogue” — the traditional flat-bottomed, pointy-ended canoe used by Louisiana bayou folk for generations.

Millie Medina, the marina manager’s wife, hopes the good luck will spread.

“Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida — the whole coastline needs a good blessing,” she said. “Mother Nature’s not being nice to us.”

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