The Christmas Boat Parade is not for the faint of heart.
Let’s get something straight right now. I may not be the bravest skipper on the high seas, but I’m not the most chicken-hearted either. In fact, I have sailed a small leaky boat from Mexico to the South Pacific with only my wife for crew. (She may tell you I was the crew and she was the captain, but still…) Twenty-five days at sea. Three thousand open ocean miles. No sleep.
In my two years before the mast, I saw 15-foot high waves break over the stern of my boat and flood the entire cockpit. With my wife in it. I saw black squalls that erased the sun and blasted me with 45-knot winds and massive lightning bolts 1,000 miles offshore. I saw a grown man cry after reading a weather forecast. Okay, that was me.
But that’s sort of more to my point. Which is that in all my travels, I was never, ever more frightened than when I piloted a small Boston Whaler with eight guests aboard around Newport Harbor during the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade. There was screaming. There were hysterics. There was a lot of cursing. And while I don’t think it went over well with my guests, frankly, I couldn’t help myself.
Now, like all cherished, dysfunctional holiday traditions, my love-fear relationship with the Boat Parade began with family, when I was just a boy. Yes, fearing the Christmas Boat Parade was something that we did every year.
When I was young, my father, a composer, bought an old wooden 36-foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser, named it the Loosetania, and docked it at the Balboa Bay Resort (then the Club). Every year my dad would get excited about participating in the boat parade.
“This is going to be the year, kids. We’re taking Loosetania out in the parade! Won’t it be great?” he’d say as he danced around the decks with strings of lights in hand. And every year my sister and I would get more excited than Christmas morning, coming up with decorating ideas and helping attach lights. We’d be abuzz with Christmas stoke. We’d imagine ourselves waving to onlookers who would point at our floating masterpiece, the one that carried the “Sweepstakes Award” banner for best overall boat.
Then the parade’s first night would approach and the corners of my dad’s mouth would turn slightly downward as he stood at the rail and studied the growing flotilla hitting the bay. Next, he’d develop an anxious shuffle, side to side, like someone about to have a root canal. Then he’d move to the helm, an unsteady hand on the wheel, his gaze becoming less sure as the moments ticked on.
Finally, the big announcement would come, which was always a little different. One year, the engines were making a “funny click.” Another year, the controls “felt sticky.”
But it always ended the same: with us sitting on the Loosetania while she was tied securely to the Balboa Bay Club’s slip D-11. We sipped eggnog and ate cookies and told each other that we were the lucky ones, not missing a thing, except the hassle of maneuvering a boat through “that crazy mess.”
All those years I figured my dad was a wonderful father, a great composer and not much of a skipper. I carried that thought right through my entire South Pacific journey, during which I didn’t hit one darn thing. If you don’t count reefs.
Then I went out in the parade, and I thought, “My father was a very wise man.”
But this is not a sad story about my family’s failed years as a boat parade drop-out. This is a happy story, about the bold and lighted, about good sea captains and their triumphant cruises around Newport Harbor singing and waving to all the hapless souls who sit at docks like D-11 or dodging small over-populated Whalers piloted by frightened ex-salts.
It’s about people like Dan Flynn, Emily Vogler and their two 20-something sons Eric and Nick. Emily grew up on the Balboa Peninsula and remembers joining the parade every year from the late '60s to 1980 on her father’s boats, which got progressively larger.
“The last one was 76 feet,” she says. Her older brothers enthusiastically decorated it every year, and for Emily, the parade became a family tradition – with only fun and no fear associated with it.
It’s a tradition she carries on today, with her husband, Dan, and two sons, who have taken over the decorating. And she means it. Their boat, a 50-foot motorsailer called Hippocampus, with a tall mast on which to hang lights, has taken awards in the parade every year.
Possibly their most memorable year was when they featured a 40-foot SpongeBob SquarePants on the mast, in keeping with the parade theme that year: Feeling Christmasea. She says it involved a lot of rebar, PVC, netting, and two kids who are pretty good at building things.
I ask her if she ever gets nervous, you know, about piloting a 50-foot rebar-wielding, top-heavy yacht around a bay filled with drunk skippers. “Well, we have a bow thruster,” she says. “Oh, I understand,” I say, but I really don’t. “Besides, Dan drives the boat. I cook and make sure all our guests are well-fed and happy.”
Right. It also helps when boats actively try to get away from you, I think, after she tells me: “The year we had SpongeBob, the boats around us kept falling out of line because they got tired of hearing the SpongeBob song over and over.”
Since she’s been a longtime participant in the parade, I ask her if she thinks it’s gotten more organized. “No, it hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s still complete insanity in the bay,” she says. In fact, she says she thinks it’s gotten even crazier.
“Because when I was a kid it didn’t have those big party yachts that are hanging out in the middle, or the rented Duffys, or the standup paddleboarders. Now, we’re [by which she means her hapless husband Dan] dodging people on a standup paddleboard who have only a flashlight – if you’re lucky!”
Later, I speak to Seymour Beek, owner of the iconic Balboa Island Ferry and whose father co-founded the modern Christmas Boat Parade back in 1947, and who himself is a commodore in the NB Chamber of Commerce’s Commodore’s Club, which organizes the parade and, more importantly, then tries to control the chaos that ensues by marshalling entered boats into line and marshalling all other boats out of it. I ask him what it’s like.
“It’s amazing how many people just go steering a boat right off into the parade route, getting in the way. That’s what we really try to guard against. You either yell at them or shine a bright light at them. And mostly the people are just unconscious; they don’t know what they’re doing,” he says, as if that’s supposed to ease my mind.
As for Emily and Dan, those unconscious skippers do nothing to dissuade their spirit, especially in the prize-hunting department. And it seems to be that enthusiasm that makes the difference since, as she points out, many of the boats are corporate boats with big budgets – the parade website boasts that some entrants have spent more than $50,000 on decorations.
“We recycle the junk in our backyard. So we have to make it up in the creativity department,” she says. Enter SpongeBob.
Scott and Billie Flamson didn’t have SpongeBob looking down on them their first few years of competition, but they did have Jay Leno.
They’ve lived in Newport Beach for 50 years and Scott says he participated in the parade as a young man, but then took a long hiatus until 2003, when he entered with his restored 36-foot, 1961 wooden powerboat named Max. And despite the simple name, nothing about the Flamson’s campaign was simple.
First, he started a friendly rivalry with his dock neighbors, Marilyn and Steve Harvey, when HGTV said they wanted to film a segment on the pair competing. That got Flamson fired up.
“I realized to do well in the competition you had to pull out all the guns and go for it,” he says. He says at first it became “who could buy the most lights,” and they had custom lights and decorations made. A lot of them. They spent thousands of dollars and many weeks planning and decorating. “There was no room for people but there sure were a lot of lights,” he says in his jovial tone.
In fact, there were illuminated dolphins, a Santa Claus, and even ice skaters. And they paid off. That year, with the HGTV cameras rolling, the Flamsons won best power boat all sizes and best first-time entry.
“That was my favorite year,” says Scott.
The next year, the ante was raised when a producer for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" called. More than once, actually. “We didn’t believe him so we hung up on him a few times,” says Scott.
But they eventually got it straight and began a nationally televised contest between the two boaters. “We would start decorating the day after Thanksgiving, and it’s sad to say but we were plugging away until the night before the first night of the parade,” he says.
Eventually, with the comedian Harland Williams commentating, they filmed live as the winner was announced…
The Harveys. “If the year before was my favorite year, that was the worst parade night ever, when I lost the competition on national TV,” says Scott.
The Flamsons and the Harveys continued their rivalry for a few more boat parades, but sanity eventually won out and the Flamsons will not be competing – or going totally overboard – this year. Instead, they’ll be trying to help manage the craziness in the bay the night of the parade.
Which seems interesting considering this sentence Scott threw at me when I asked if he was afraid of having a collision in his beloved wooden boat that took five years to restore: “I was born and raised in Newport and been on the water all my life, and I have this NASCAR thing in my body where that just becomes part of the contest.”
Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to make of that other than total admiration. To me, it seems the perfect attitude to have when venturing into the boat-stuffed bay on a parade night. It also reminds me of something Seymour Beek told me.
“There have been some collisions, but the boats aren’t going very fast. And there haven’t been any sinkings, just some minor collisions. And a few people who’ve fallen overboard. But there’s plenty of help around because there are so many boats,” he says.
Now call me crazy, but that seems the opposite of comforting, because falling in 55-degree water, in the dark, with hundreds of boats buzzing around piloted by tipsy captains sounds more dangerous than playing Frogger at the Indy 500.
But then, maybe I’m looking at it all wrong, at least judging from Flamson’s final words of advice for hopeful Boat Parade skippers.
“I always say, you have one drink to calm the nerves and then you go out,” he says. I’m going to assume he meant the “one” in that sentence quite literally. But more importantly, when he told me that, it hit me that this may be where my whole Christmas Boat Parade dreams went wrong: My dad didn’t drink.
2013 Christmas Boat Parade Vitals
Starts at 6:30 p.m. and ends at approximately 9 p.m.
The parade starts and ends off Bay Island.
Theme: Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree!
Fireworks? Oh, yeah. A fireworks show will take place at 6:15 p.m. on the opening and closing nights, launching from the Balboa Pier.
949.729.4400 :: christmasboatparade.com
A Quick History of the Newport Beach Boat Parade
1908: On July 4, John Scarpa, an Italian gondolier who moved to the area a few years prior, decorates his gondola with Japanese lanterns and leads a small procession of eight canoes that do the same. The first lighted boat parade of the area is born.
1913: Scarpa is at it again, this time naming the event the Illuminated Water Parade (don’t ask us why it took five years to come up with that). This time, however, the boats are judged, with prizes going to the best-decorated and best-lighted boats.
1914: The parade grows larger, still happening on July 4.
1915: The parade is a bona fide hit, with over forty boats ranging from launches to rowboats participating. There was even a derelict boat hull that was set afire, a reenactment of a rescue scene, and a fireworks “battle” between two boats. Oh, and they exploded two underwater mines.
1917: A little thing called World War I and a nasty depression put boat parades and exploding underwater mines out of favor, so the bay went dark for five years.
1919: Joseph Beek, founder and operator of the Balboa Island Ferry, comes to the rescue. Most of the participants are kids who use Beek’s garage to construct and decorate floats, which are towed around the bay.
1949: After running every summer, with the exception of the years during WWI and WWII, the city officials now saw the parade as attracting too many visitors and causing traffic problems. (Can you imagine what they would think today?) Seymour Beek, Joseph’s son, and then in high school, skippers a small boat that tows a string of friends in sailboats.
1946: Rewind a few years… Back in 1946, the Junior Chamber of Commerce members had decorated a tree, put it on a barge, and cruised around the harbor singing Christmas carols to homeowners during the holidays. This was the precursor to the modern Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade.
1947: Joseph Beek offers up one of his ferryboats to carry the tree and lead the parade. Other boat owners decorate their yachts and fall into line. Okay, this is the precursor to the modern Newport Beach Christmas Parade.
1972: The Christmas Boat Parade is now so popular that all three ferryboats are needed to carry onlookers back and forth across the bay, so another lead boat is used, and ferry operators are given combat pay and post-parade counseling.
1990: The influx of “corporate” super-yachts, up to 100 feet long, heats up with professional decorating campaigns that push past $50,000.
2000s: The parade features more than 100 official entries and hundreds more scattered across the bay in the five-night event. Up to one million people will witness the parade, and around the bay, homes will try to outshine the parade in wattage with their own competition, the Ring of Lights.