CORTEZ — A near capacity crowd of 90 was inside the Floating Chapel on the Bay as it chugged out of Cortez on a historic jaunt Sunday.
It was the first time the unusual craft — it’s a 60-foot-by-30-foot hull with a chapel on top that includes a steeple, stained glass windows, vaulted ceiling and oak pews — has ever been used for nondenominational, nonaffiliated Sunday worship, said Orca Fisher and Jill Chandler Fisher, the vessel’s owners and captains who go by Captain Orca and Captain Jill.
The inauguration of a new Worship on Water program brought out many curious spiritual adventurers, such as Joyce Oden and her son, Alex, vacationers from Ohio, and Maynard and Dee Pastorius, local residents of San Remo Shores.
All said they were curious what it would be like to reflect on spiritual matters on the open water.
“It was lovely and very touching,” Joyce Oden said.
“The crowd was larger than we ever dreamed,” Captain Jill said of the maiden voyage.
“Everything went wonderfully. It was really a spiritual celebration, which is what we wanted.”
The captains did not enlist a local faith leader to lead the program because they didn’t want it limited to one religious viewpoint, they said.
Instead, the message will be given each week by inspirational teacher Gloria Ponziano.
For the past week the Fishers have been getting calls from many customers who wanted to offer credit cards over the phone to buy a ticket for Sunday’s cruise.
Captain Jill said many were incredulous when she explained that the Worship on the Water program, unlike the Fishers’ wedding program, requires no fee nor reservation.
A love offering is taken and the seats are first-come, first-served.
“The only thing you have to show up with is your smile,” Captain Jill said. “This is a giving back kind of thing for us.”
The floating chapel will board the first 110 passengers who show up at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday from now on in the Seafood Shack Yacht Basin on the mainland side of the Cortez bridge in Cortez.
If it rains the vessel may not go out, but the service will still be held in port, Captain Jill said.
The vessel will depart at 11 a.m. and return to port at 12:30 p.m. It goes roughly three miles, cruising wherever the captains desire. On Sunday, the vessel motored north to Palma Sola Bay then south to the Longboat Key Pass.
About 15 minutes after Captain Orca powered up the vessel’s twin diesel engines and began cruising out into the Intracoastal Waterway, Ponziano told the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale.
A recording by the Australian musicians Hillsong played through the vessel’s speakers, prompting many in the crowd to start dancing in their seats, Joyce Oden said.
“They were clapping and laughing and singing,” Captain Jill Fisher added.
“I would say, ‘bopping,’ ” Oden clarified.
Alex Oden saw three dolphins coming by to see what all the commotion was about.
The vessel was also circled by smaller boats, whose occupants got out their cameras.
“A couple of guys in boats were holding up their ring fingers to show us they were already married,” Dee Pastorius said with a laugh. “They didn’t know we weren’t doing weddings today.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.