TARPON SPRINGS — As a young boy, Rhett Linton would watch intently as his papou carefully carved the Epiphany cross.
Sitting close to his grandfather in the workshop in the back of his house, the child would smile as Bill Paskalakis — Tarpon's official Epiphany crossmaker for 40 years when he died in 2010 — took his hands and helped him guide sandpaper or a spray can over the cross, adding paint and smoothing out rough edges until it was just right.
Gathered with his family at Spring Bayou each year, Rhett imagined the day he would dive from a dinghy into the murky waters with other teen boys in search of the cross, which is supposed to bring a year of blessings to the retriever.
His time has arrived.
Rhett is among 44 young men who will participate in the cross dive Monday during Tarpon Springs' 108th Greek Orthodox Epiphany celebration.
"It's pretty nerve-racking," said Rhett, a 16-year-old Tarpon Springs High School junior who will be diving for the first time. But, "I'm happy to get out there and finally dive for my family. It's always been a part of my family, especially because of our connection with the crosses. Even though he can't be here to see me dive. I just know my papou's up there watching me."
Tarpon Springs' Epiphany celebration, held each year on Jan. 6, is considered one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The blessing and throwing of the cross into the bayou is the centerpiece event of Epiphany, which celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
But celebrants and dignitaries also turn out in droves for the Blessing of the Fleet, a Jan. 5 ceremony bestowing favor on merchants and boaters along the city's Sponge Docks; the solemn church service held the morning of the dive; and the elaborate costumes, dancing and food of the Glendi festival held after the dive.
This year's Epiphany is expected to attract as many as 25,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, locals and other spectators from around the world.
"To those who attend the service of Epiphany," said Father James Rousakis, acting dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, "whether they be Orthodox or non-Orthodox Christians, it has the same deep meaning to them — that God is now before them in father, son and holy spirit. And we bask in the light of his radiance."
Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce president Sue Thomas said hoteliers, real estate agents and retail merchants noticed an uptick in winter visitors this year and that tourists were visiting the area earlier — a surge that they hope continues during Epiphany.
"I think the economy actually is turning around and they're not as worried about spending the money to come down," Thomas said. "We had a lot of folks come in town (for Epiphany) last year and we're expecting even more this year."
Indeed, Rhett's mother, Flora Linton, said relatives are traveling from across the country to watch her and her husband Mike's only son dive, possibly from a new Epiphany dinghy that a relative has commissioned bearing her father Bill's name.
"It's definitely bittersweet. Rhett and my father were very close," Flora said. "My dad took great pride in his crosses. And the fact that his grandsons (Rhett and Nicholas Souder, who inherited the job of cross maker) are going to be part of Epiphany, he would be so proud."
The dive is considered a long-anticipated rite of passage into manhood for Greek boys ages 16 to 18. However, Rhett, a Tarpon native who grew up water skiing and boating on the bayou, and the other divers, who attend an orientation on the religious significance of the Epiphany celebration, are just as focused on the spirituality of the event. And for Rhett, the honor is compounded by his relationship with the cross.
"When I was younger, I didn't really understand how special it was to be so close to a great religious symbol of the church," he said. "But looking back now, I realize how lucky I was and how important it was to have that experience because that's not something everyone gets."
He added: "There's only so much you can do to prepare. It's basically just what the church teaches: Whomever God wants to get the cross gets it. So it's not really in my hands."
True to custom, the 2013 retriever, Vassilios "Vassili" Harding, says his year was full of blessings: His family has prospered and he personally has "strived to do better" and stand up for himself.
"Retrieving the cross brought my family back together. We were under a lot of economic stress. This is what encouraged us to keep striving forward," said Vassili, 17 and a Tarpon High senior. "It gave us hope. God gave me the cross because he had something in store for me."
His advice to this year's divers? Never give up. Try your hardest. Swim as if this will be your last. Don't think of it as a game. And "be a good sport about it," he said.
"Think of it as being one of the few chosen ones in the world to do this, to participate in this Epiphany celebration."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or email@example.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.