SOUTH BRISTOL, Maine (NEWS CENTER) - Students at the small South Bristol elementary school carried on a long tradition on Friday. The eighth graders -- all five of them -- launched a pair of rowboats they built over the past ten months. The school has been building boats for sixteen years, but this year they were forced to make a change.
As a result of a complaint by an out-of-state activist group, South Bristol had to end its long practice of including a "Blessing of the Fleet" in the launch ceremony. The complaint said including a religious blessing in the school event violated Constitutional separation of church and state.
Many townspeople were angry about the situation, but school leaders decided to modify the ceremony slightly to remove the specific religious element of the blessing. Instead, principal Scott White asked for a moment of silence to wish the boats luck and a safe voyage. Local resident and minister Peggy Davis also spoke to the students and the crowd, reminding them that many traditions change over time, and that this year had been a learning experience for everyone.
South Bristol residents had their own response. A parent of one of the boat builders teamed with the owner of Bittersweet Landing boatyard to hand out red T-shirts carrying the words "It's a Tradition". Boatyard owner Mike Nyboe said that was a statement that the centuries-old practice of blessing new boats as they are launched is a tradition, not a religious ceremony.
He also led another small act of defiance: as he stood on the launching trailer, just before putting the boats into the harbor, Nyboe let out a very loud, presumably fake sneeze. The crowd quickly shouted a loud "God Bless You".
With that, attention returned to the young boatbuilders. Champagne christened the two gleaming wooden skiffs, then they were launched into South Bristol harbor. The students took to the oars, and spent the next twenty minutes happily rowing their handiwork around the harbor.
Speakers and parents all praised the boat building program at the school, saying it teaches skills and accomplishment, and provides confidence as the youngsters head off to high school.