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Sail Portsmouth Tall Ships Festival 2023

Blessing of Fleet is back, reviving tradition.

PORTSMOUTH — A long-missed tradition celebrating a key community in the city’s maritime history will return this year to mark the city’s 400th anniversary celebration as part of the Sail Portsmouth tall ships festival.

The Blessing of the Fleet ceremony will take place on Thursday, July 27 during the festival’s opening Parade of Sail and Flotilla 400 up the Piscataqua River to the Memorial Bridge.

The Parade of Sail and Flotilla 400 kick off this year’s Sail Portsmouth tall ship festival, which will run July 27-31. A multi-denominational group of local religious leaders positioned on Four Tree Island will bless the tall ships, fishing vessels, commercial and recreational boats in the parade as they pass by the island.

Jason Brewster, owner of Brewster’s Bait and Tackle in Portsmouth, in cooperation with Sail Portsmouth and Portsmouth NH 400, proposed the renewal of Portsmouth’s traditional Blessing of the Fleet.

“It’s been quite some time. I think the last Blessing of the Fleet was celebrated in the 1980s, and the 400th anniversary is a great time to bring it back,” Brewster said. “It’s something that’s been missing.”

What you need to know: 5 tall ships coming to Sail Portsmouth 2023. Details on festival tickets and more.

Brewster, who grew up on Hunking Street and now operates the shop his great-grandfather founded, added, “There are a lot of people that have no recollection of the Blessing of the Fleet back in the day. That makes it more important than ever to bring it back now.”

That’s why Brewster approached Portsmouth NH 400 organizers to make it part of the year-long celebration.

“The reason we’re here is this river,” Brewster said. “Without the river and the people who work on this river, there would be no Portsmouth.”

The Portsmouth NH 400 year-long celebration includes seven pillars, or event themes, one of which is Maritime and Military.

“The Blessing of the Fleet easily falls under Maritime & Military,” said Valerie Rochon, executive director of Portsmouth NH 400th Inc. “One of our core values is diversity, inclusion, respect and accessibility, so we asked Jason to reach out to all denominations to invite them to participate. With the help of one of our great volunteers, Linda Sartorelli, all identified denominations, including the leaders of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki tribe, were invited.”

Participating clergy will include Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman of Temple Israel; Denise and Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People; Rev. Jacquelyn Brannen of the First United Methodist Church, Portsmouth; Rev. Dimitrios Moraitis of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Portsmouth; Rev. Gary Belliveau of Corpus Christi Parish, Portsmouth; Rev. Westley Conn of Stratham Community Church; and Rev. Jennifer Mazur of the North Church of Portsmouth. Additional local clergy members are expected to be added to the ceremony as their attendance is confirmed.

“All of us that grew up down here on the river, the Blessing was our own thing. Everyone on the river was involved in it,” Brewster said, remembering the whole fishing fleet participating in the ceremony with boats all decked out with decorations, families making tons of food, and lobster crate races across the river. “People would line up to watch from the riverbanks along Mechanic Street and Pierce Island.”

Crates that were used to hold lobsters were tied together with rope in a chain that created stepping stones across the water. The races were timed and the fastest racers won.

“Ten-year-olds were the kings because the lighter you are, the less the crate would sink down into the water. The adults would get dunked immediately,” Brewster said.

All his fond memories of the celebration grew from the ceremony at its core, blessing the city’s fishermen and all those who made their living from the Piscataqua River and Atlantic Ocean.

“Despite all the merriment, the original intention of the event was the annual blessing of the local fishing fleet by local clergymen,” he said.

Five tall ships coming to Portsmouth

The Parade of Sail and Flotilla 400 on the evening of Thursday, July 27 will feature five tall ships: the three-masted Trinidad, the two-masted schooner Ernestina-Morrissey, the three-masted schooner Denis Sullivan, the topsail schooner Lynx and the schooner Bowdoin. The Parade of Sail and Flotilla 400 is a joint presentation of Sail Portsmouth and the Propeller Club. Gov. Chris Sununu will be the grand marshal of this year’s Parade of Sail.

At 6:15 p.m. on July 27, the tall ships joined by the gundalow Piscataqua, Portsmouth’s own tall ship, will begin the parade at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. They will be accompanied by a flotilla of vessels, both civilian and commercial fishing boats plus military and municipal craft. The Parade of Sail will end at the Memorial Bridge where the tall ships will turn around and head to their mooring sites. Two will berth at the Portsmouth Commercial Fishing Pier, which will be the festival’s headquarters for the weekend, just across from Prescott Park. All boaters are invited to join in the Parade of Sail.

New this year, private pleasure and commercial fishing vessels which participate in the Parade of Sail and Flotilla 400 are eligible to win a $1,000 gift certificate from Hamilton Marine. The Propeller Club of Portsmouth is distributing 500 cold drink koozies that contain a ticket to enter the Hamilton Marine raffle and U.S. Coast Guard boater safety information to local boaters. Distribution locations include Hamilton Marine, Brewster’s Bait and Tackle, Pierce Island Boat Launch, Portsmouth Marina (Sagamore Creek), Wentworth Marina, Rye Harbor, Portsmouth Yacht Club, Kittery Point Yacht Club, Safe Harbor Kittery Point Yacht Yard, Great Bay Marine, Great Cover Boat Club, Freedom Boat Club, Badger Island Marina and Piscataqua Marina (Badger’s Island).

Boaters have until Aug. 10 to turn in their raffle tickets at Hamilton Marine at 56 U.S. 1 Bypass in Kittery where the winning entry will be drawn.

Brewster’s Bait and Tackle is also providing 15,000 feet of colorful plastic flag garland for local boaters to decorate their boats with for the Parade of Sail and Flotilla 400. Boaters can pick up the garland at the bait shop at 121 Mechanic St., Portsmouth; at the Pierce Island Boat Ramp, at Esther’s Marina and other local marinas. After the parade, boaters can drop the garlands at Brewster’s, Esther’s or at the boat ramp and they will be recycled.

“In celebration of Portsmouth’s 400th anniversary, we wanted to create a Parade of Sail and festival weekend that are truly memorable,” Phil von Hemert, chair of Sail Portsmouth, said. “I cannot remember the last time five tall ships entered our harbor at the same time. This will be spectacular. We’ve also added one more day to tour the ships and take a tall ship day sail this year. Now I just hope everyone can be there to celebrate our city’s long maritime history.”

The two tall ships that will be open to the public for tours at the Portsmouth Commercial Fish Pier are the Trinidad and the Ernestina-Morrissey. They will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, July 28-31. Admission to the festival and tours is $12 for adults. Children under 12 are free. A family ticket is $30 and admits one adult and up to three children ages 13 to 15. Tickets for Sail Portsmouth members, active military and seniors are $10. Tickets for ship tours and the festival venue can be purchased online at sailportsmouth.org/events and at the gate if still available.

Tickets, which are good for any time on any of the four days, provides admission to the Sail Portsmouth 2023 dockside venue to tour exhibitor booths, listen to entertainers, purchase food and interact with local pirates and period re-enactors.

Day sails have sold out, but tickets are available for two-hour ocean sails on the Lynx July 27-31, leaving from and returning to the UNH Pier in New Castle. Tickets are $69 and passengers must be at least 6 years old. Parking at the pier is free. Tickets are at sailportsmouth.org/events.

All net proceeds from the festival go to the Sail Portsmouth Sea Challenge Scholarship Fund to support local high school youth who participate in experiential learning programs at sea on tall ships.

The Piscataqua Maritime Commission, now operating as Sail Portsmouth, is the nonprofit organization that presents Portsmouth’s tall ships festival each summer.

To commemorate the revival of this treasured Portsmouth tradition, Brewster’s Bait & Tackle commissioned local artist Dan Blakeslee to create a special silkscreen print depicting the Blessing of the Fleet.

The public can purchase a limited edition 11×17 silkscreen print numbered, signed and created by Blakeslee himself for $75 or a 11×17 digital reproduction for $20, printed by PNH400 in-kind sponsor AlphaGraphics. The Kennedy Gallery on Market Street is offering 25% off for anyone who would like to get this collectible art framed. Blakeslee’s artwork can be purchased at portsmouthnh400.org/portsmouth-nh-400-mercantile/p/blakeslee-botf-11×17-digital-print and at the Sail Portsmouth festival.

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