Fifty-nine years ago, a historic city on Amelia Island held its first Shrimp Boat Festival to celebrate the industry centered around those crustacean-seeking trawlers on its waterfront.
Now an estimated 125,000 people could flock to Fernandina Beach’s annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival Saturday and Sunday to consume fried, steamed, sauteed and jamabalayed versions of the little creatures, plus shop for arts, crafts and antiques and generally fill up the city’s Centre Street area.
From Thursday’s parade to Sunday’s last cup of shrimp gumbo, the annual festival is sure to be a busy one, expected to have a $16 million impact on the community, said Shrimp Festival Committee head Pat Kaminski.
“We honor the shrimpers of the past, the present and the future,” Kaminski said. “For the food booths, you have to be a Nassau County nonprofit. So this festival is vital to having all of the nonprofits that we do have in Nassau County. On Sunday, we have the blessing of the fleet, which includes our local shrimpers and other watercraft. There’s just so much; there’s something for everybody.”
As visitors drive in on Florida 200 through Yulee, or State Road A1A along the ocean, expect heavy traffic as they get closer to Fernandina Beach. Street parking downtown is scarce, so don’t forget the city’s park-and-ride satellite lot with shuttle bus service at the city high school, Interim Chief Jeffrey Tambasco said.
“We do that every year, but that always seems to be a misconception and nobody goes there and people start driving up downtown, filling up all the streets and parking where they shouldn’t park,” Tambasco said. “If they do have to park in the street, we ask that they leave enough room for a fire truck to get through. That’s our biggest challenge. Some of our streets are older and narrow.”
What’s in a name
The festival is named “Eight Flags” because the historic city has lived under eight of them — flags, that is.
The first was the French flag in 1562, when the Huguenots visited. In 1573, the Spanish established a mission on the island, ultimately abandoned in 1702 when the British took over and renamed Amelia Island. Then in 1783, Florida was returned to Spain, including Amelia island, while what is now Fernandina was mapped in 1811, named in honor of King Ferdinand VII.
In 1812, patriots briefly seized the island with the approval of then-President James Madison, raising a Patriot flag that was replaced by the U.S. flag. The Green Cross of Florida flag flew in 1817 when a soldier of fortune and his crew seized a fort on the island. But a pirate laid claim to the island on behalf of the Republic of Mexico later in the 1800s. The Confederate flag flew Jan. 8, 1861, as Fort Clinch was taken, until Union forces retoook in in early 1862 and the stars and stripes flew again.
Shrimp fest fun
Thursday night’s parade begins at 6 p.m. down Centre Street. Friday will see the annual pirate invasion on Centre Street at 9 p.m., followed by fireworks. Visitors can invade Centre Street between North Eighth and Front streets from 3 to 10 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, with a 1 p.m. Blessing of the Fleet, plus decorated shrimp boat parade and contest.
There will be 12 food vendors at corner stands and the riverfront food court, all sponsored by local nonprofit groups. More than 320 artists and craftspeople will line Centre Street with booths, along with 30 more antiques and collectibles purveyors on many side streets. The Kids Zone is in the city’s library parking lot just south of Alachua Street between North 3rd, and 4th streets.
Kaminski said the festival is 100% volunteer run, with 168 men and women who “put their hearts and souls” into working all weekend in their blue shirts.
Although it has been 59 years since the festival was founded, the commemorative T-shirts on sale say 58th, since the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19, Kaminski said.
As for parking, the city’s Park and Ride lot is at Fernandina Beach High School on Citrona Drive, $10 per vehicle with shuttle buses running from 5 to 11 p.m. Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The park and walk lot is at Buccaneer Field at South 11th and Beech streets. There are more city lots at Atlantic Avenue across from Central Park or along the Amelia River waterfront. Those lots are $20 per vehicle.
For more information, go to shrimpfestival.com.