IF EVERYTHING GOES as planned, at precisely 6 p.m. Saturday more than 40 boats participating in the Eastport Yacht Club's annual Parade of Lights will simultaneously flip their switches, and the Annapolis harbor will be transformed into a pageant of light.
Strung stem to stern with holiday lights, the boats will form a procession of luminous displays: Sea serpents, manatees, angels, nutcrackers and Christmas trees will motor their way around the harbor and through Ego Alley at City Dock.
It's a feast for the eyes of about 30,000 spectators who crowd city streets and cram waterfront restaurants every year for the show. For those on the boats, Saturday night will be the payoff for hard work that began long before the holiday season.
"We start back in August," said Frank Florentine, 53, of Annapolis, who designs the lights for the sailboat entered in the parade by the club Singles on Sailboats.
That might sound like a lot of lead time, but they don't just string a few lights around the stanchions.
Last year, they won the award in the Best Animation category. Their display featured Santa Claus and the Grinch fighting over a toy sack.
The lights changed sequentially so that at one moment viewers saw the Grinch tugging and Santa leaning forward. Then Santa tugged and the Grinch gave way. In the end, the bag split open and a sailboat flew out.
This year, Florentine said, their design will feature ice skaters leaping and doves flying.
As the lighting designer for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, Florentine combines his skills with those of club member Howard Newman, who is an electrical engineer.
"We get the concept down, and start figuring out how we're going to do it," Florentine said.
After that, with the help of about 50 volunteers from the club, they build the structure and add the lights in Newman's garage. The whole thing isn't attached to the boat until the day of the parade.
Then, more than 20 people descend on Drew Spaeth's 34-foot Hunter with lights, a 16-channel theatrical dimmer board to control them, a 3,000-watt generator to control the board, a backup generator and a 5,000-watt generator for other pieces of equipment.
Spaeth, 57, who lives in Annapolis, said this is his fifth year entering his boat in the parade for the club.
"It's a lot of camaraderie between friends," he said. "It's more than just putting a boat in the parade; it's a lot of fun, being with friends and people who love to sail."
And although not all of the displays are as elaborate or involve as many people, many of them start coming together in the heat of the summer. Bud Elsaesser, 52, of Annapolis also said he starts planning his entry in August.
He won the Commodore's Choice award last year for his animated Nutcracker Suite display. This will be his third year entering his sailboat, a 29-foot Ranger.
As past commodore of the Eastport Yacht Club, which sponsors the event, he's participated in many parades. This year, he conducted a seminar for parade newcomers about safety tips and lighting strategies.
Yacht club officials and parade participants emphasized that safety is a major concern for the event. With lights blocking the views from some cockpits, some skippers rely on two-way radios (or, like Spaeth, closed-circuit phones) to communicate with a lookout on the bow. The boats file through the harbor and past City Dock in rapid succession, often maneuvering in confined spaces.
For those on smaller boats, just keeping up can be exciting.
Sunny Devese of Annapolis, motivated by the dearth of small boats in the parade, entered her 11-foot Avon inflatable last year for the first time and found it wasn't easy motoring with the big boats.
"There were three of us in the boat with a generator," she said. "The parade has to move very quickly, and we were continually bailing because the wake was coming over the stern."
Her rigid-bottom inflatable wasn't in danger of sinking, but cold, wet feet can dampen the excitement of participation. She won Best Holiday Spirit for her Littlest Christmas Tree.
"The inflatable is gray, and we put green lights on it to look like a little tiny Christmas tree," she explained, "Out in the dark, you can't see the boat. All you could see was this little Christmas tree bopping around. ... All along City Dock and at the Naval Academy, people would start cheering and screaming when we came by."
Devese's little boat inspired the art for this year's Parade of Lights holiday card and poster by Annapolis artist Daniel Vong. Eastport Yacht Club sells the cards and posters to help support the event, which is free to participants and spectators. Gail Demcsak, who is in charge of selling the 10,000 holiday cards and 600 posters, said some proceeds go to the Eastport Yacht Club Foundation, which supports activities for underprivileged children in Annapolis.