TARPON SPRINGS — One by one, the group of boys lowered the dinghies into the water. It was Saturday morning, the first day of the year, and it was their job to help get the 12 dinghies in a semicircle in Spring Bayou.
Today, all 78 of them will splash into Spring Bayou and head toward those dinghies. Some of them will reach the inside of the boats, others will hang onto the dinghy sides in the chilly January waters. Then the coveted cross will be tossed into the water and the boys will dive in pursuit of it.
It's the 105th Epiphany Celebration, the largest in the United States. It commemorates the Baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
It starts with a morning church service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral followed by a processional through the town with schoolchildren decked in traditional Greek garb. It is capped by the dive for the cross, a rite of passage for Greek Orthodox Christian boys. The cross retriever is said to gain favor from God.
Dimitri Kalogiannis of New Port Richey, a senior at Gulf High, was last year's cross retriever.
"Overall, it's been a pretty good year," he said Wednesday. "Having the cross has been fun to talk about."
Once you get the cross, you no longer can dive. But there are plenty of others in pursuit.
"To be a part of the Tarpon Springs community and coming from my Greek heritage, it's a big honor for me," said Henry Coburn, 17, who is diving for the second year. "I feel blessed just to be involved and to receive that blessing that all the boys receive come Epiphany day."
Nicholas Pantelis, 18, is diving for his third and final time. He said he's getting a bit nervous, even having a hard time eating as the day nears.
"Being able to participate in the event that my father participated in and so many in the community before me have is a privilege of its own," said Pantelis, who is in his first year at St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs campus.
Pantelis said whether he gets the cross or not, the dive is part of a religious ceremony about God's will.
"There is really nothing you can do to prepare yourself to get the cross," said Pantelis, noting that some divers try to have strategies. "You just have to enter with the right state of mind, but there is nothing you can do to give yourself an edge over the other guy."
To participate in the dive, the boys have to be between the ages of 16 and 18 and baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. They must live in the Tampa Bay area and be active members of the church, which includes attending Sunday school and Wednesday night youth meetings.
The divers had to write an essay. They also help load the dinghies into the bayou and will assist in removing them.
"The religious training is so they recognize and appreciate the purpose of the Epiphany event," said Michael Kouskoutis, who has helped manage the divers for the last 25 to 30 years. "It's not a sporting event but the celebration of the baptism of Christ which in our faith is a very holy day."
Kouskoutis, who dove for the cross in 1976 and '77, said there are more divers this year than in recent years.
He said the divers' safety is paramount. There will be paramedics at the scene and safety divers in the water from the Fire Department.
"If you would imagine, 78 young men trying to retrieve one object, one item," Kouskoutis said. "So, you can appreciate the chaos, water churning, hands and feet flying that the person who retrieves the cross, is actually destined to receive it."
Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias received the cross in 1974. He said while the celebration is for the masses, the diving is an individual and independent way of building spirituality and a relationship with God.
"The emphasis by the church to educate young men about the faith and to share the values, principals and to strengthen their faith with Christ is positive," said Lulias, 55. "In a world of problems, it's the idea of the church trying to bring stability to people lives.
Andrew Lontakos, 17, opted out of diving last year. Today will be his first dive for the cross.
"One of the requirements said you had to be an outstanding member in the church, and I was one of those holiday attendees," Lontakos said. "This year, I buckled down, went to a lot more church, more Sunday school.
"By going to church and going to Sunday school, I feel like I learned a lot and I've bettered myself."
Theodore "Teddy" Bilirakis, 16, is also diving for the first time. He too is a bit excited and nervous at the same time. Bilirakis, son of U.S. House Rep. Gus Bilirakis, has always attended church regularly but he said as Epiphany approaches, there seems to be a different connection.
"I feel Jesus is with us every day of our lives," he said, "but on the day of Epiphany, you feel extra close to him."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4174.