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Crowd finds festival in good taste

Saturday was not a good day for fish or claustrophobics. In all, though, the fish fared worse. At the 11th annual John's Pass Seafood Festival, they were fried, grilled, smoked, steamed, baked, blackened, chowdered, slapped between buns, stuffed into pitas, ground into spreads and baked into cakes.

And then you got to the food court.

Nothing from the sea was spared the indignities: shrimp, conch, grouper and shark, one of them strung up to have its weight guessed. But that one probably was better off than those that wound up on kabobs called shark-on-a-stick.

Claustrophobics, on the other hand, merely had to contend with traffic that made Gulf Boulevard look like a parking lot and with an elbow-to-elbow crowd waiting in lines for a taste of another seafaring delicacy.

Susan Armstrong was in her element, though. "This is the tops for me," she said. Ms. Armstrong, sporting a painted face she had picked up at an earlier festival at a Gulfport elementary school, said she has been to each of the 11 seafood festivals.

"I like the atmosphere, the crowds, everything _ the people .

.

. crab legs," the 25-year-old St. Petersburg resident said.

She and Eddie Rush, also 25, from Clearwater, said they had to park so far away that the walk to the village took 20 minutes. "I'm just here to get a beer," Rush quipped, following the hike across John's Pass Bridge.

The village's shops and restaurants were joined by crafts booths, a petting zoo, face-painting and food concessions. Crowds gathered at the water's edge to watch a Coast Guard boat and helicopter simulate a rescue at sea. Games and activities for children were plentiful.

At Don's Dock, Tony Cellamara told youngsters how to pick a winning crab for the race he emceed throughout the day. "Pick the ones with big claws and six legs," he said to the seven youngsters scrambling around a plastic pool full of fiddler crabs. "Don't pick the ones that are kind of laying on their backs; they're dead," he told them.

They rarely win, he said.

Organizers estimated 100,000 to 120,000 people would attend the festival, which started Friday and runs through 8 p.m. today. Money raised through the event will be donated to several charities.

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