28 August 2023

Ulladulla's Blessing of the Fleet Fest in doubt ... again

| Katrina Condie
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Float parade

The colourful float parade attracts thousands on Easter Sunday. Photo: Katrina Condie.

A cloud hangs over the future of the 2024 Blessing of the Fleet Festival following the resignation of the entire organising committee.

Revived by the Milton-Ulladulla Rotary Club this year following a three-year COVID hiatus, the Easter Sunday festival with a colourful float parade attracts thousands of visitors to the region and has been an annual highlight for local residents since 1956.

Rotary chair Bernie Jones has put out an urgent call for expressions of interest from community members keen to step up and keep the festival afloat.

If volunteers cannot be rallied together, next year’s event will not proceed.

“For it to continue, there needs to be a strong organising committee to bring together all the aspects necessary to hold the event,” Bernie said.

“This includes fundraising, organising the market stalls, entertainment, liaising with council and government authorities and many other things.”

He said a standalone, one-event committee would need to be formed as soon as possible, with “leaders and helpers to get the various jobs done”.

“The task of raising the necessary funds to hold the event needs to be happening quickly,” he said.

“The festival doesn’t just happen. Without anyone to organise things, it won’t happen and will not go ahead.

“If the 2024 format were to remain the same as past festivals, with a parade, entertainment and fireworks etcetera, then yes, these things need to be organised. Past organisers have contact details and knowledge they are happy to pass on.”

The 2023 volunteer chair Leonie Smith and six committee members have stepped down from their roles and Bernie said there was “a need to fill their very big shoes to ensure that the 2024 festival happens”.

“The new committee will have complete freedom to make the festival whatever they want it to be,” he added.

“While past committee members have stepped down, they are all keen to assist the new committee with advice, contacts and anything else that will help them along the way.”

Bernie has asked for anyone who loves the festival, and wants to ensure its ongoing success, to “please step up to help organise it”.

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“The more the merrier. There are many tasks to perform to make the festival happen,” he said.

“In the recent past, two or three people have taken on massive, complex tasks due to the lack of numbers. The more people involved, the more these tasks can be delegated.”

Leonie has been on the committee for 10 years and chair for six, but she has stepped down as the massive job has taken its toll on her.

“It’s a huge job,” she said.

“The festival needs a shake-up. It may take a year or two with no parade to get it back up again.”

Leonie said parade running expenses had doubled and government funding was difficult to obtain.

Rotary membership had also dropped, she explained, leaving limited people to run the event, while the Ulladulla-Milton Lions Club and Shoalhaven City Council were both unable to take it on at this stage.

girl on float

The 2024 Princess of the Fleet Ball will go ahead, but the float parade is in doubt. Photo: Katrina Condie.

Bernie said Rotary had reached out to other groups but had received “no offers to take on committee roles”.

“Apex would likely still run the beach games, however, it appears that although individuals from these groups may be willing to assist, the organisations are unwilling to commit to the festival,” he added.

He said Rotary members were keen to be involved, but exactly how would be determined by the new committee.

Leonie’s decision to end her role follows the resignation in October last year of the Princess of the Fleet Ball chair Rebecca Cameron, who stepped down due to increased work commitments.

While she won’t be involved, Rebecca is pleased the 2024 ball will still go ahead for the 40-odd year 10 high school girls and their partners. However, if the festival is cancelled, the princesses will miss out on taking part in the float parade.

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“The Rotary club will continue to run the ball. Whether the parade floats are part of this will depend on the situation with the 2024 festival,” Bernie confirmed.

He said the local fishermen and Catholic church had previously held smaller blessing ceremonies, including during COVID, despite the parade being cancelled, and could choose to do that again next year.

The Blessing of the Fleet Festival celebrates the town’s Italian fishing roots and centres on an official blessing ceremony held on the harbour wharf on Easter Sunday.

Markets, rides, live music and the Ulladulla Apex Club beach games, including the tug of war and the greasy pole competition, around the harbour and civic centre grounds, provide a day of entertainment culminating in a family fireworks display.

The festival was cancelled about 10 years ago when the committee folded, but the town’s service clubs, including Rotary, Apex, Lions, Marine Rescue, the State Emergency Service and others, joined with the local Italian community to step up and organise events and coordinate traffic control for the parade until 2020.

It was a full-town effort that ensured its success until the pandemic hit.

Ahead of the 2023 festival, the inaugural A Taste of the Sea – an evening of fine dining featuring local seafood – was held on Easter Saturday night overlooking the harbour as a fundraiser for the festival.

Bernie has asked people to email him at [email protected] to express their possible availability so an initial meeting of interested parties can be arranged.

“After that, it’s up to you!” he added.

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