Boat parade in Annapolis illuminates holiday spirit



on the water In the beginning, there was just a little light.

But as Ivon Paulin explains, the Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade has come a long way from its start as a casual gathering of festive boaters in the early 1980s.

"There were probably about three or four boats," he says of his first time in the event. "It wasn't a formal parade. It was, `Let's put some lights on the boat and ride around the creek.'"

This year, visitors to Annapolis on Saturday can expect to see up to 50 boats bedecked in lights and laden with costumed characters and other holiday paraphernalia as participants in the 23rd official lights parade cruise around Annapolis Harbor and Spa Creek from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

"Even the Naval Academy shuts down their lights along the water just before 6 o'clock," says Nancy Noyes, communications chairwoman for the Eastport Yacht Club. "It goes from being very, very dark to all of a sudden all the boats being lit up. It's a lot of fun."

Participating boats will be divided into two fleets. One will cruise in front of Eastport, the City Dock and the Naval Academy while the other runs a circuit up the length of Spa Creek upstream from the Sixth Street bridge. Midway through the event, the fleets will switch locations. As a result, spectators can catch the entire parade from viewing locations at the City Dock, on the Naval Academy sea wall and along Spa Creek.

The event will be held rain or shine and will be canceled only in the event of high winds.

Over more than two decades of waterborne parades, the event has evolved from simple light displays to include a range of themed vessels. Publicity chairwoman Sandra Rosswork says that this year viewers can expect at the very least to see boats with disco, island and Santa Claus themes.

"There are some perennial favorites that appear on a more or less regular basis," says Noyes, noting a particularly elaborate, fire-breathing Chessie display based on the Chesapeake Bay's mythical sea creature. "A lot of people put an incredible amount of effort into their displays. You're likely to see a whole story being told in a sequence of boats."

The current parade is a distant but direct relative of the ones Paulin participated in with Jim Langer, who began the tradition with a lone boat in 1981. As the number of participants grew to two, three and four vessels, the decorations remained relatively modest.

"We had a string of lights going on the bow. Nobody was really concerned with what they looked like," Paulin says. But over the years, "it just began escalating, in terms of how well the boats were decorated."

At this point, with boat displays that include moving parts and computerized light patterns, he says it's become an annual "engineer's challenge."

Rosswork says the decorations vary widely based on the type of vessel. Sailboats often use the rigging to run lights up the mast, while power boats sometimes appear in illuminated outline.

"They erect structures on the deck, add Christmas trees and sleighs, and they have people dressed up in there, too," she says. "Sometimes they play recorded music ... all kinds of things."

The yacht club promotes the event by selling postcards and posters at the club and at various Annapolis shops. Paulin says this year's design by local artist Gayle Mangan Kassal is his favorite so far.

And while Paulin participated in the parade until 1990, he says in recent years he's been happy to enjoy the spectator's perspective.

"It's much warmer," he says.

Parking will be available after 2 p.m. for $5 at the town lot and at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Free shuttle service from the stadium to the top of Main Street will be provided.

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