Vassilios Harding hung on to the overturned rowboat, shivering in the chilly Spring Bayou waters and waiting for the moment the blessed cross hit the water.
When it did, he was there in 10 seconds flat, beating out 46 other Greek teens in the 107th annual Epiphany observance in this northern Pinellas County coastal community.
"It was glowing white. I guess it was calling my name," Harding, a 16-year-old junior from Tarpon Springs High School, said during the ceremony afterward at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. "God will give it to the certain person who really needs it the most. I guess I needed it."
Tradition holds that the family of the boy who retrieves the cross gets a special blessing. His mother, after giving her son a kiss, said this will help guide the clan through the coming year.
"He's wonderful. He's giving and he's spontaneous," said Tina Harding. "He loves people and he loves to help others. Truly, he is so deserving of this."
Little sister Mia, 9, also is a big fan of "V," or Vassili, as he is called.
"He is a really great big brother. I'm going home now to bake him the best cake ever, with lots of sugar in it."
The only thing that marred the day for Harding, a devoted Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Steelers fan, was that his father couldn't be there. Spanos Harding is a sea captain and was working on a boat in Key West.
"I just wish my dad was here to see this. I love him so much," Vassilios said, clutching the cross tightly. "This is such a happy moment and I want to share it with him. I'm feeling every emotion possible."
It was smooth sailing for this year's cross dive, in sharp contrast to the confusion that marked last year's event.
Sixty-one boys dived after Archbishop Demetrios, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, cast the cross in the murky waters. No one found it after 61/2 minutes, so he threw in a second one, which several boys tussled over.
Eventually, after heated discussions among participants and parents, and a lot of back and forth on social media, organizers recognized four winners for the first time in the event's history. Organizers decided that this year, only one cross would be thrown, no matter what happened.
The dive for the cross is just one part of the daylong festival, which marks the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. It opens with a three-hour Divine Liturgy in the cathedral and ends with a party featuring authentic food and dancing.
As many as 20,000 people have attended the celebration in past years. Organizers expected that many Sunday until rain was forecast. The bad weather never came, though, and the sun shone on a day with temperatures in the high 70s.
Still, Tarpon Springs police estimated a much smaller crowd than in previous years.
Ailene Reed relaxed in a lawn chair by Spring Bayou as she waited for the cross dive.
"Our boys are out snowmobiling today," said Reed, who was staying in her winter home in New Port Richey to escape the cold weather of Mendon, Mass. "I think everything about the festival is beautiful. I love this area and the uniqueness of the dive."
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 Glendi, a family tradition they take part in every year.
"For me, the festival is all about the baptism of Christ. ... I hope people remember what this is all about and that it's not just a party," Despoto said. "I think everybody is blessed and this festival kind of brings good luck to everybody for the new year."
Tiffany Wisman works at nearby Currents seafood restaurant and said the festival is the biggest day of the year for many local businesses.
"I went to a Greek orthodox private school, so this is a big deal for those practicing," Wisman said. "The blessing is just a renewal of spirit and a bounty for the upcoming year, for me. The young men will definitely be blessed, and we're blessed with watching them dive."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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