Decorating a boat for a Christmas boat parade, said Fort Myers Beach skipper Vaughn Peters, is “just like decorating your house.” Of course, your house probably gets power from the electric company, doesn’t have to contend with being rocked by wave action, and doesn’t have crew members clambering all over its upper decks.
It probably also doesn't have the all-out blaze of lights and ornaments found on many boats in Southwest Florida's boat parade entries, either. Frank Donahue, who has won Best in Class in the Naples Boat Parade seven times and tied for best overall once, made a rough estimate that he has festooned his vessel with more than 5,000 electric lights, not to mention the artificial snow machine he regularly ships aboard.
It's also not a good idea to be drilling holes in the cabin or superstructure of a million-dollar yacht or to drive spikes into the deck, as you might for a lawn ornament. But boaters are resourceful and experts at rigging. Donahue, who is also president of the Florida Marine Industries Association, said plastic cable ties work best, along with light docklines.
Having sold his own boat recently — one of a boater's two happiest days, it is said — Donahue, who works as a marine consultant, is lending his expertise for this year's Naples Boat Parade to a 41-foot Albemarle being entered by Phil Osborne, owner of Naples Boat Mart.
"We'll have lights on the on the rails, on the outriggers — a pile of lights," Donahue said. "And Santa Claus, in full dress, running the boat from the tuna tower.
"It takes four to five days to put the thing together," he said, "and one day to take it all apart — which is not nearly as much fun."
Peters said the first time he entered the parade, it took a week to get the boat decked out, but "like with anything, you get good at it with practice."
Other captains have their own ideas for what makes a winning parade entry. Capt. Rudi Landwaard, entering his 31-foot Tiara "Sweet Lips" in Marco's Christmas Island Style Boat Parade, plans to have a reindeer: Rudolph, appropriately enough. He comes complete with shining red nose, mounted as a figurehead, with Santa's sleigh behind, full of Christmas presents.
Landwaard said he gets his craft put together for the parade over a weekend, with the key being to make sure you have lots of help. The folks who want to ride along in the parade are the starting point. Along with "a ton" of twinkling lights, Peters favors the inflatable figures of snowmen and Santa Claus to lend some pizazz to his décor.
Creativity is key, along with a unique interpretation of a parade's theme, agreed the captains. For the Naples parade, this year's theme is "The Polar Express," so among the 30 or more boats entering, chances are good for seeing some boats transformed into trains.
Frank Perrucci, in his twelfth year as chairman of the Naples parade, said the judges try to keep it simple, and not overthink the issue.
"Judging is real basic. This is a fun event — there's no stress level. It's really just a feeling," Perrucci said. Judges include Naples mayor John Sorey, TDC executive director Jack Wert, Daily News publisher Dave Neill and radio host Dave Elliott.
The Naples outing offers the chance for multiple winners (with categories for boats up to 30 feet), additional classes by length, and a separate category for sailboats in addition to the overall grand prize. That grand prize will be worth $1,000 cash to the winning captain this year.
Proceeds from the parade will go to the Ricky King Foundation, which helps children with serious medical conditions and their families. Over the years, Perrucci estimated, the parade has donated close to $80,000 to the cause.
The big night for area boat parades is Saturday, when Bonita Springs, Naples, and Marco Island all take to the water.
Adam Botana, chair of the Bonita Springs Boat Parade, said they had 27 boats last year and expect 30 to 40 this year.
"Our parade is a little different. We don't go in circles, we actually go someplace," he said of the parade's route up the Imperial River. His own vessel will feature a T-shirt cannon, firing shirts to spectators onshore, he said.
With the simultaneously scheduled events and the logistics of piloting a floating Christmas tree out into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, few captains venture far from home to enter events in other towns.
Fun is what it's all about, both for those onboard the boats and the thousands of spectators who enjoy the light show from land.
"We always invite 12 or 15 children, kids with medical issues, to the judges' stand at the Sailing & Yacht Club," Perrucci said. "Seeing their faces is the best part of the whole event."
"We circle around and go back by the restaurants" along the waterfront, even after the parade ends, Donahue said. "If the people keep hanging around, we'll keep entertaining them."
"I love going around the bays, pulling Santa's sled, and hearing people cheering," Landwaard said. As a licensed boat captain, he had one word of caution for his fellow skippers:
"As captain, you really have to watch out. I never drink during the parade — but the moment we're back, oh yeah, I'll have a drink. Or two."
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IF YOU GO
What: Boats of all sizes set sail decked out in lights and Christmas decorations
When: All parades start at 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8
Parade route: Starts at the Fish House, 4685 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs and goes up the Imperial River to east of U.S. 41 to Holly Lane, then returns to the Barefoot Boat Club for the after-party at the Fish House.
■ Fish House, 4685 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita Springs
■ Imperial River Boat ramp, 27551 U.S. 41 S., Bonita Springs
■ River Park, 27550 U.S. 41 S., Bonita Springs
■ Along U.S. 41 bridge over Imperial River, parking available at Kmart and Fresh Market
Information: 239-495-0455 or www.bonitaboatparade.com
What: 23rd Annual Marine Industries Association of Collier County parade along Naples Bay to benefit the Ricky King Foundation. This year’s theme is “The Polar Express.”
■ Naples City Dock, 880 12th Ave. S., Naples
■ Riverwalk Restaurant and Pinchers Crab Shack, 1200 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
■ Kellys Fish House, 1302 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
■ Cove Inn and Boat House Restaurant, 900 Broad Ave. S., Naples
■ Bayview Park, 1500 Danford St., Naples.
Parade route: Starts near Orange Court, heads east to Jolley Bridge, then turns and follows the Marco Island coast through Collier and Smokehouse bays. Parade will then loop back and go past La Peninsula on the Isles of Capri and end at Snook Inn.
■ Esplanade, North Collier Boulevard and West Elkcam Circle, Marco Island
■ Snook Inn, 1215 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco Island
Information: 239-250-8348 or www.christmasislandstyle.com