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Washington, D.C.

The Blessing of the Fleets Ceremony

The fountains of the U.S. Navy Memorial are annually salted with water from the Seven Seas as part of a nautical ritual. 

The four-fountained U.S. Navy Memorial swims against the current of prevailing norms associated with 21st-century military monuments. In addition to its traditional role as a celebration of nautical service, some believe the pools of water have an occult power to safeguard mariners and deliver heavy hauls.

The Navy Memorial only goes back to 1987, but its annual Blessing of the Fleets ceremony draws on superstitions from the ancient world. Once a year, a white gloved honor guard armed with glass buckets of water “drawn from the Seven Seas” marches in lockstep around the memorial as prayers are read.

At the appointed moment, the vessels are upended, the fountain beds moistened, and silence broken with a sea of applause and snapping photography. The Navy refers to this as “salting” the memorial and takes the ritual seriously.

“The Blessing of the Fleet goes way back, at least to the time of the Phoenicians, 3,000 years ago,” Navy Memorial president John Totushek explained in 2010. The tradition started when people aboard fishing fleets would make an offering at the water’s edge and ask for protection from choppy waters and mythical beasts.

The Blessing of the Fleets occurs in April and is conveniently timed to coincide with the annual re-watering of the fountain. Left dormant over the winter to prevent burst plumbing, the fountain bubbles to life at the flick of a switch immediately after its ritual salting. Afterwards, attendees feast on traditional Navy Bean Soup prepared courtesy of sailor-cooks at the White House Mess.