Vassilios Harding emerged from a splashing crowd of 47 teenage boys to grab the cross in Spring Bayou today as part of the Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs.
Harding, 16, a junior at Tarpon Springs High School, came up with the cross in just 10 seconds. He is the son of Spanos and Tina Harding. His father, a boat captain, was in Key West and unable to attend the event.
Harding will receive a special blessing for the year for being the first to get the cross, which for this year contained less lead and floated on the top of the bayou.
Controversy had enveloped last year's event when, after the first cross was deemed irretrievable, the archbishop threw a second. Both were eventually found, and four boys were ultimately deemed winners – the only time in the event's history that has happened, and, organizers say, the only time it ever will.
"This year, there's only one cross," said the Rev. Mike Eaccarino, dean of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
The traditional Greek prayers and hymns that can be heard throughout Tarpon Springs today are signs of religious observance for some and signs of a party for others. Though Tarpon Springs police estimate that the crowd for the 107th annual Epiphany celebration was smaller than last year, the event drew thousands.
Ailene Reed, relaxed in a lawn chair by Spring Bayou as she waited for the cross dive — the main attraction of the festival. Meant to symbolize Jesus' baptism, 47 Greek boys dove into the bayou after a cross thrown by Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Mere moments after the cross was thrown it was retrieved by Harding, who received a blessing from the pope for the coming year.
For Ailene Reed, the festival provided a welcomed excuse to leave the cold weather in her hometown of Mendon, Mass.
"Our boys are out snowmobiling today," said Reed, who was staying in her winter home in New Port Richey. "I think everything about the festival is beautiful. "I love this area and the uniqueness of the dive."
Tyler Boffil, 17, came to see which boy would be the talk of the town this year. Though Boffil is not a member of the Greek orthodox church, he said many of his friends have participated in the dive and shared a class with one of the boys who caught the cross last year at Tarpon Springs High School.
"It's not my religion, but I would if I could," he said. "I think catching it is supposed to bring like seven years of good luck. I don't know if he got good grades, but I hope it's true."
Manuel Porripio from Tarpon Springs has attended many festivals throughout the years, but almost didn't make it to today's because of threats of rain. Though he said he doesn't know much about Greek religion or history, he is still fascinated by the throwing of the cross.
"I've heard some stories in the past that it's been good luck for the boys," he said. "I do remember a boy a couple years ago that was in some kind of life or death situation and got out of it. I believe that if they believe that they're going to have a lucky year maybe they will."
Tarpon Springs native Mike Despoto stood with a crowd of family members on the shores of the bayou as he waited for his children, 7, 9 and 10, to dance in the festival, a family tradition they take part in every year.
"For me, the festival is all about the baptisim of Christ … I hope people remember what this is all about and that it's not just a party," he said. "I think everybody is blessed and this festival kind of brings good luck to everybody for the new year."