TARPON SPRINGS — Stelios Uzunboylu welcomed Tuesday's blessing.
That's why he stood still on the sponge boat Little Joe as Father Alexios Marakis splashed holy water on his forehead and all about the vessel.
The Blessing of the Fleet, which is part of this week's 104th Epiphany celebration, is said to keep sponge boats, fishermen and their crews safe while they are at sea. The blessing is also to help the sea merchants have prosperous journeys.
Tuesday afternoon, the father walked from boat to boat and into many of the businesses along the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, sprinkling the water that was blessed in a ceremony.
"It's been tough," Uzunboylu. 30, said of the sponge industry. "This is the worst I've seen it. It's not like a gallon of milk. You don't have to have a sponge. So the blessing, it might do us some good because we need it."
Two days before Christmas, Uzunboylu, his father, Ali Uzunboylu, and a crew returned to the dock after 17 days of scavenging natural sponge in the Gulf of Mexico.
They made it back safely, but now the worry is how much of a purse will come from the harvest.
This summer, the Little Joe crew brought back $30,000 worth of sponge, but a buyer was willing to pay only $11,000 for it, said Ali Uzunboylu, 63, who has been sponging since he was a teen.
"You need the money so they know you are going to sell to them," he said.
The recent voyage netted about $7,000 worth of sponge, they say. A buyer was to survey the catch Tuesday afternoon.
Bill Gresko has been sponging for 21 years and owns the boat Agios Fanouris. He, too, welcomed Tuesday's blessing.
When the housing market went bust, so did a lot of the sponge business, Gresko said. Now, there is little demand for the yellow sponge that was used in paint brushes.
And then there was the two tons of sponge that Gresko said was shipped in from Liberia this year.
"We all need a little blessing," said Gresko, 50. "I know I can use all the blessings I can get. I pray when I'm there and I hope that my faith alone helps."