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A fair amount of partying goes on each year during Fisherman's Festival weekend, a community-wide celebration that welcomes thousands of visitors.

They partake of live music, beer and wine, and whimsical events like bathtub races, a pet parade and a wooden-boat challenge.

But at the heart of this festive annual occasion is a solemn rite that many in the fishing community say gives meaning to the town's festive traditions. Out past the protection of the jetty, where the waves rise and the horizon beckons, the fleet is blessed.

"It's our little town's big weekend," Sophie Powers said Sunday as her family's sport fishing boat, the New Sea Angler, prepared to lead a procession of local fishing vessels through the harbor.

The parading watercraft were bedecked with colorful banners and loaded with family members and friends. Passengers aboard two boats lobbed water balloons at each other as about 30 vessels converged from various marinas and headed out toward sea.

The blessing is a ritual acknowledging the inherent risks of an occupation at sea, an opportunity to seek comfort and safety on the eve of the important commercial salmon season, whether because of a belief in a higher power or mere superstition, local fishermen said.

Aboard his boat, the Regina Marie, Aaron Weinzinger said he came in from fishing crab to make sure he would not miss the blessing, much as he has in years past. He has made the trek from waters near Eureka or Fort Bragg, at least once with a full load of crab on board.

"It's very serious for me," he said. "When you're 200 miles out there in the ocean, your God-fearing feelings come out."

Matt Anello, a deck-hand on the Molly, said he made sure the captain, who recently acquired the boat, planned to take her out for the blessing.

"It's our safe passage to go fishing," said his friend Sean Amoroso, who works aboard the fishing vessel Outsider.

Three clergymen participated in blessing the boats this year from aboard the New Sea Angler, whose skipper, Rick Powers, stopped in the inner bay just past the jetty so the other participating vessels could surround him.

Through a loudspeaker, they prayed for the success and safety of the fleet, as well as for families and loved ones who wait at home for those who work in one of the world's most dangerous jobs.

Powers' wife, Sophie, and daughter, Maren, then set adrift a flower-filled wreath in honor of those lost at sea. A bugler played taps.

"The sea is an awesome source of bounty, and it's an awesome source of danger," said the Rev. Michael Vosler from the local Fisherman's Chapel. He joined Father Bob Benjamin of the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese and Pastor Jerry Lites from Bodega Bay Church for the blessing.

The preachers took holy water and sprinkled each vessel as it passed, offering individual blessings to those aboard who removed their hats and gave their thanks and, sometimes, made the sign of the cross.

Powers said he knows there are many who "don't want to miss the blessing."

Some in the fleet don't participate — either because they're busy converting their vessels for the start of salmon season Thursday after the bare decks of crab season, or because they don't feel their boats are clean and ready.

"It's mostly for the local guys," said Randy Linard, who fishes between Washington and Bodega Bay with his two sons. "We say a prayer every day."

Several said they wouldn't go out without the annual rite that acknowledges the challenges and dangers of their work, and those who confronted them and lost.

"If you're not religious, you just do it for that reason — to show respect for people lost at sea," Anello said.