Mates aboard Capt. Justin haul a stone crab trap out of the Gulf’s waters. Commercial fishermen like the Bruland family and others are the backbone of the Marathon Seafood Festival and the driving force of the industry. IAN WILSON/Keys Weekly

You can’t hire this type of help. Really. And it’s my absolute favorite part of the Marathon Seafood Festival — not the food, or even the music, or the opportunities for us island-locked, shopping-starved Keys residents. It’s the people. Because it is truly the entire town’s labor of love to present this annual event on Saturday and Sunday, March 9-10, the second biggest event all year in all of the Florida Keys. I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t “work” the festival in some aspect or another, including yours truly.

And that’s the way it has always been, dating back to 1976. On paper, the Marathon chapter of the Organized Fishermen of Florida and the Marathon Chamber of Commerce are the hosts of the event. In reality, it takes a village and has since the first festival.

Of course, the commercial fishermen make up a huge chunk of the people who make the seafood festival happen. Paul Lebo, a commercial fisherman and Marathon Chamber of Commerce board member, oversees that part of the population, although he says not. “They just show up. I just order all the food,” he said. “Oh, and I’m in charge of plating the dinners.”

Raymond Bruland runs the shrimp tent while Pete Worthington and Mitch Gale oversee the preparation of the lobster and fish dinners. Mike Hammond runs the conchwurst and smoked fish dip booth (a delicious yet well-kept secret of the festival). Eddie Cordova Jr. oversees the lobster bisque and conch ceviche tables. Gary Nichols and Barbara Hewlett are in charge of the stone crab, oysters and clam chowder. Bobby Pilar does the conch fritters. Elizabeth Prieto — nothing short of a goddess on Sunday morning after a hard night of festival-ing on Saturday — makes the Cuban coffee, plus sells the crab cakes and croquetas, a Cuban delicacy. Trish Worthington runs the sweets booth. The Turner family runs back and forth between the fish house and the festival grounds replenishing seafood supplies. Trish Baker … well, I think she might be in charge of keeping the volunteers sufficiently hydrated with beer; but, I could be wrong. Josh Struyf and his buddies man the soda and water trailer. Justin Bruland and Jo Ann Wagner handle the financial aspect.

None of the commercial fishermen (or friends thereof) mentioned in the paragraph above works alone. They all supply their own crew, who work around the clock for two days. It’s not uncommon to have two or three generations of family and friends in every booth. Indeed, sometimes the best “party” is the narrow corridor behind the seafood booths, open only to the volunteers.

But, at the festival, volunteers come from all walks of life. Art Stephens is in charge of staffing the beer tent. Look for coaches and high school teachers filling cups as fast as they can. Nick Toman and his friends populate the wine booth which, this year, also extends to frozen alcoholic beverages. John Bartus, Marathon’s mayor and a Weekly columnist, organizes all the music with his bandmate Glenn Faast. Ted Violissi, our favorite one-eyed pirate, makes the French fries and Centennial Bank staffs the hamburger and hotdog tent. There’s a smoothie tent that is the purview of the Landry family, and seems to be staffed by high school drama club members year after year. 

No one is working for personal financial gain. If there’s a tip jar, it supports a local cause, so put something in it.

The winner of this year’s bid to wipe down tables is the Elks Lodge. Members will be keeping things clean for a little bonus it will put toward high school scholarships. That’s important to note, because no one is working for personal financial gain. If there’s a tip jar, it supports a local cause, so put something in it.

There are two heavy hitters left to mention — Randy Mearns and his crew from Marathon Electric Sign and Light, who run power to 200-plus vendors and essentially is in charge of setting up the festival grounds; and the chamber’s Jeanine Christiansen, who handles the logistics for the same vendors. Both are huge jobs; both work very hard. 

There is another category of volunteers, too, the ones who work the gates and perform other miscellaneous tasks, like selling festival T-shirts or managing parking. They also number in the hundreds. And then there are the people who don’t have an official job other than to keep their BFF company in their chosen role. They count, too.

I have never experienced this level of volunteerism in my life. I don’t know if it exists anywhere else. I don’t know if there’s a succession plan. All I know is this: when myself and the Weekly Newspaper staff have finished our shift of handing out the official Marathon Seafood Festival guide at the gate, and it’s time to let our hair down, all our friends will already be there.

(* If I have left anyone out of this huge roster, it is my fault and my fault alone. Please punish my liver by buying me a beer.)

Saturday and Sunday, March 9-10
SAT: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. & SUN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• @ Marathon Community Park, MM 49
• Admission $5
• Food & drinks: mahi mahi • Key West Pink shrimp • lobster • stone crab • conch ceviche • conch fritters • beer • wine • more!
• Live entertainment: Ricky Valido • Howard Livingston • Maggie Baugh • Terry Cassidy & Gary Hempsey • The Stone Crabs • I-Land Vibe • Jade Storm • Caribe • Crush • Tim Dee & Jim Hill Band
• More: A kids’ zone with rides/ games • more than 200 vendors

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