EVERGLADES CITY — Sherron Cooper boasted she had the "best seat in the house" to watch the blessing of the stone crab fleet in Everglades City.
On Saturday afternoon, she and her brother, who was visiting from Nebraska, claimed a shaded bench behind the historic Rod and Gun Club in Everglades City, near the Barron River, where they watched the small fleet come in to applause and whistles.
At one point, Cooper joked she should try to sell her rare spot of shade for a few bucks, as others near her stood directly in the hot sun, dripping with sweat.
She said she'd been coming to the blessing for the last couple of years. The event, which attracted a crowd of about 200, is now in its fourth year.
Florida's stone crab season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15. Crabbers can drop their traps on Oct. 5, but have to wait 10 days to start retrieving them. Stone crabbing is now a multimillion-dollar business. The claws caught by the local crabbers are shipped all over the world.
As the boats lined up at the docks Saturday, organizer Tod Dahlke belted into a blow horn: "It's what this town was built on ladies and gentlemen, right before your eyes."
As the boats pulled up behind the club, a rainbow of flower petals was dropped on the docks alongside them. Local pastors blessed the eight boats one by one, saying a prayer and flicking water on them with palm fronds — to bring them luck. Soon after, the boats got a blessing of another kind, with rain drops that pushed the crowds inside, where there was live music and food.
"I think everybody should support the crabbers," said Cooper, 69, who has lived in Everglades City for 11 years. "They spend money in town so it helps support the economy."
Her brother, Bob Stern, 67, grabbed his video camera to take it all in as soon as the first boat, "Sticky Business," came into sight on the river. Harvesting crabs isn't much different than harvesting crops, including corn and wheat, that come from his home state, he said.
"Everybody takes the same kind of chances," he said. "Nobody knows what your harvest will be. It's a tough life."
Bart Stokes, 51, who lives in Chokoloskee and has been a crabber for 25 years, said last season wasn't bad, despite fluctuating prices, and that he never knows what to expect from year to year.
"You have no idea. Not only don't you know, it can change on you in a minute," he said.
The blessing is a recognition of the crabbers' hard work, Dahlke said.
"Really what it's about is these guys," he said. "These guys break their backs."
Lorna Rewis, the 73-year-old daughter of Loren "Totch" Brown, who pioneered commercial stone crabbing in Everglades City, attended the blessing for the first time. She recalled her father's early efforts to develop stone crab traps. His trials included traps attached to coconut buoys.
"I used to go with dad to get the bait," she said. "He would harpoon the stingrays and we set big hooks to catch sharks. We caught this huge shark about where the national park building is now. We never knew that sharks that big would be inland like that."
__ Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden