A year of good fortune

Looking back, Jack Vasilaros is still not sure whether it was divine intervention or sheer determination.

Vasilaros was just 16, with a mouthful of braces and none of the bulk or experience of the other teens vying for the Epiphany cross. Standing on the second-to-last step, dwarfed by the pack of 54 boys, he seemed to have no chance.

Yet seconds after the bodies thrashed through the murky waters of Spring Bayou, it was he who emerged with the white cross firmly in hand.

Almost a year has passed since Tarpon Springs celebrated the centennial Epiphany, marked by the historic visit of His All Holiness Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of world’s 250-million Orthodox Christians. On Saturday, there will be a fresh flock of divers and another crowd of onlookers lining the bayou for the city’s 101st ceremony honoring Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan.

Today Vasilaros’ bedroom in Clearwater Beach is filled with ornate montages, trophies and plaques. Encased in a heavy glass box on his dresser is the sacred cross, believed to bring a year of blessings. Clearly, he has had a good year.

After years of success in professional fishing tournaments, which often pay tens of thousands of dollars in prizes, in September he was fishing for fun about 80 miles west of Clearwater when he hooked a once-in-a-lifetime catch.

It took two hours, much of it on captured on video, to reel in the 650-pound blue marlin, a long-billed fish that is typically found in tropical waters or deep in the Atlantic, he said.

And that was just one bit of good fortune. There also was the fishing tournament he won even with a broken finger, the mission trip to Costa Rica and the chance to shadow a big-time lobbyist around Capitol Hill for a week in July. There have been other things – like the wallet full of money that a stranger returned right to his door intact, the hulking black pickup in the driveway or the 32-foot Boston Whaler out by the dock.

The stories come out in spurts, interrupted by a bit of hesitance. People are sick of his “showboating,” he says. “I just like to get stuff done,” he says, bolting around a makeshift workshop next to his bedroom. Jumping between his sketches, his laptop, his box of valves or clamps, he paused only to offer his business card.

At 17, Jack Vasilaros is not just a junior at Calvary Christian High School. He also is president of JWC Products LLC.

“It’s a limited liability company,” he explains. The entity was set up to market one of his most promising inventions, a system of tubes that simplifies the task of flushing boat motors with fresh water. “The patent is pending,” he said.

Now he’s a bit broader, a little taller and the braces are gone. He talks with the assuredness of a middle-aged CEO. He said he is intent on establishing a firm financial base, spinning out ideas for inventions that will “make people’s lives easier.”

“It’s all trial and error,” he said. A sheet of paper scrawled with baby-blue marker, for instance, reveals the remnants of his latest error. It turns out somebody had already invented holiday-themed ice cube trays, Vasilaros said. “I’ve got to chill out,” he says.

Asked why he was the one to find the Epiphany cross last year, he wavers. There was no personal trainer or training in ice-chilled pools, he says. Just sheer will and some basic strategizing: he wore a trim, lightweight pair of shorts and washed his Epiphany T-shirt several times so it would shrink and lessen the bulk. His mother, Sophia Vasilaros, chimes in, prodding him to tell the rest.

“I just put my head down and I was all by myself,” he recalled. “I could see clear as day, a line right to the cross … I thought it was going to be mud … an illusion that would disappear, but then I grabbed it.”

If you go > Epiphany events for Saturday

– 8 a.m. – Orthros (Matins) at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36 N Hibiscus St., Tarpon Springs, followed by a Hierarchal Divine Liturgy at 9:30 a.m.

The services will be followed by the traditional procession of clergy, altar boys, children dressed in Greek costumes and cross divers. They will be accompanied by the Tarpon Springs High School Band, choirs from Tampa Bay area Greek Orthodox churches as they parade from the church along Orange Avenue, south on Ring Avenue and west on Tarpon Avenue.

– Noon – Diving for the cross at Spring Bayou. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios will bless the waters, the dove will be released and young men 16 to 18 will brave cold waters to dive for the cross. The retrieval of the cross is considered a source of God’s abundant blessings and grace.

– 1 p.m. – The cross-diving will be followed by Epiphany Glendi (festival), with food, music and dancing in nearby Craig Park. Admission is $2.

– 8 p.m. – The annual Epiphany Ball at the Spanos-Pappas Community Center Theofilos Hall. Admission is $35; $25 for divers. For tickets, call (727) 937-3540.