GARDINER — Dozens of motorcyclists lined up Saturday in Waterfront Park to be splashed with water that the bikers hope will ensure a safe season of riding.

“We’ve said the prayers over the water and asked God’s protection for each person who rides,” said retired Episcopal priest Jacob “Jack” Fles, chaplain of the local Fire & Iron motorcycle club. “We give them a good dab as they go by.”

This is the fifth year Fles has helped organize the Blessing of the Bikes, which, for the past four years, has included the Scott Hubbard memorial ride. The blessing and ride were again part of the Greater Gardiner River Festival, which kicks off the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Whatever Family Festival, an annual series of celebrations in riverfront communities.

Fles actually started the blessing ceremony and memorial ride eight years ago in honor of Pam Morril, a member of Christ Church Episcopal, where Fles was pastor until he was removed in 2012. Morril died unexpectedly in 2008. Fles continues to serve as chaplain of Fire & Iron club and to organize the blessing and memorial ride.

“She died young,” Fles said. “She had just completed a six-week motorcycle tour to Alaska the summer before.”

The event was not held a few years as Fles battled liver failure. He received a living-donor liver transplant from his daughter in 2010. He resumed the blessing and memorial ride in Morril’s honor when his health improved.

“It’s a very personal day for me,” Fles said. “I woke up after the 14-hour surgery just glad to be alive. I live every day thankfully and deeply, enjoying others and sharing the joy.”

The ride merged with the Hubbard Memorial Ride in 2012 after Hubbard, 45, was killed in a motorcycle crash in Vienna. The event has drawn as many as 200 riders, though about 80 riders turned out on Saturday. Fles noted the blessing coincided with the popular motorcycle week in Laconia, New Hampshire.

“We’re our own little Laconia, with the blessing of God and without the beer,” Fles said.

Ray Snider and his wife, Penny Snider, of Pittston, said this was the third year they have attended the event. The Sniders, like nearly every other rider at the blessing, arrived on a Harley-Davidson.

“It just starts off the season good for everybody,” Penny Snider said. “It brings everybody together. Everybody has lost someone throughout the years.”

The event began with a brief memorial service that concluded with Fles reading a list of names submitted by riders of loved ones lost over the years. That list included Karen Nightengale and Kenneth Black, both of whom died in motorcycle crashes last year.

Jared Nightengale, whose wife, Karen Nightengale, died after crashing her motorcycle last year on Western Avenue in Augusta, said he has not returned to riding but wanted to help with this year’s blessing because it is a tradition he had shared with his wife.

“No one expects this to happen,” Nightengale told the assembled riders. “We all expect it to happen to someone else.”

Nightengale urged the riders to prepare for the worst by making their wishes known regarding organ donation and becoming “spiritually fit,” but also to take practical steps to keep themselves safe by avoiding distractions while riding, wearing helmets and knowing their motorcycles. He also encouraged the riders to keep their speed in check.

“Don’t fly any faster than your guardian angel can keep up with you,” Nightengale said.

Helen Markham, of West Gardiner, said she got her motorcycle license only four years ago, when she was in her 50s.

“Getting a motorcycle was the best thing I’ve ever done besides marrying my husband and having my children,” Markham said. “If any of you are wishing you could ride a motorcycle, you can do it.”

The couple began riding with a group of six people, which included Black, who was Markham’s cousin; and his wife, Laurie Black. Kenneth Black was killed and Laurie Black was injured when Kenneth Black’s motorcycle hit a deer and then caromed into his wife’s motorcycle.

“We miss his laughter and fun-loving attitude,” Markham said, “but we also know when the five of us are out riding, he is always with us. Motorcycling can take your life, but it can save it, too.”

The Sniders have the same passion for riding. They gave up motorcycling for a number of years as they were raising their children. Ray Snider returned to the saddle a few years ago, and now it’s hard to get him off. He rides about 10,000 miles per year and is out rain or shine and even, on occasion, in the snow, Penny Snider said.

“He just doesn’t want to give it up because he had to for years and years because of the kids,” she said.

The watching world might not think of parents and friends when they see someone clad in leather riding a Harley-Davidson, but such people populated Saturday’s blessing and ride.

“Sometimes people have the wrong feelings about people on bikes,” Penny Snider said. “We’re just everyday people getting out to enjoy things. It’s not the persona that people think it is.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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