Local boat owners cruise into Christmas

VANCOUVER — In what has become a local tradition, local boat owners are preparing to sail into the Christmas season beginning this Friday during the 63rd annual Christmas Ships Parade.

The parade began in 1954 when a single sailboat from the Portland Yacht Club was decorated with Christmas greenery and sailed up and down both the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, according to the Christmas Ships website.

Rob Steffeck, president of the nonprofit group Christmas Ships, Inc., said that the parade was originally run by the local Coast Guard Auxiliary. Over the years, non-Auxiliary members were allowed to join, and today the parade is no longer a part of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

The annual Christmas Ships Parade will begin its series of evening parades on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers on Fri., Dec. 1.
Approximately 60 boats will make up the Columbia and Willamette Fleets for the 63rd annual Christmas Ships Parade, beginning Fri., Dec. 1 and running through Thu., Dec. 21. Photo by Mike Schultz

Over the years, the parade grew from the initial single sailboat to an average of about 60 vessels every year, Steffeck said. This year, the smallest vessel will be 14 feet in length, and the largest will be the Coast Guard cutter Bluebell at 100 feet in length.

The owners of each vessel create displays of Christmas lights that line the rails, gunwales and cabins of the boats. According to the website, each boat owner pays for their own operating costs, including fuel.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” Steffeck said, and participating in the parade allows boat owners to use their vessels in a time that is normally an off season for boating.

The annual Christmas Ships Parade will begin its series of evening parades on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers on Fri., Dec. 1.
Christmas lights are strung along rails, gunwales and cabins of the boats in the parade to create brightly colored and unique floating displays. Each owner pays for their own operating costs, including fuel, when participating in the Christmas Ships Parade. Photo by Mike Schultz

In addition, many people line the banks of the rivers on which the boats parade, or reserve spaces at restaurants to witness the boats pass by. “It’s rewarding,” Steffeck said, because the owners showing their displays help “bring joy to people on the shore.”

Being out on the water as a skipper of a vessel in the parade can be “tricky,” Steffeck explained. Night time conditions mean that extra caution must be taken to avoid accidents. Also, Steffeck said that increased runoff during the late fall means that currents are moving faster, and there tends to be more debris in the river.

“It’s kind of white knuckle at times,” Steffeck said. He did note that it can also be relaxing, especially on the larger Columbia River.

However, the ability to bring a smile to the faces of onlookers on shore makes the potential difficulties of night time cruising worth it to Steffeck. Seeing people on shore waving and cheering as the fleets sail past “makes you feel good,” Steffeck said.

Among the vessels participating in this year’s Christmas Ships Parade, one boat and owner have participated for the last 41 years. Several others have been cruising in the parade for at least 35 years.

For many, Steffeck said that the event has become a Christmas tradition.

The annual Christmas Ships Parade will begin its series of evening parades on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers on Fri., Dec. 1.
Owners of each vessel in the Christmas Ships Parade decorate their boats with distinctive displays of Christmas lights. The displays are only limited by the creativity of the boat’s skipper. Photo by Mike Schultz

Steffeck noted that there is no cost to join, and new vessels may be entered online. In addition, several local marinas provide free moorage for the month to the boats in the parade.

According to Steffeck, for skippers wanting to join, not all vessels must participate on all evenings. In addition, he said that the challenges of night time navigation can help improve the seamanship of the boat owners.

“Boating in the cold, wet, debris filled rivers at night makes you a better boater,” Steffeck explained.

Donations to the nonprofit Christmas Ships, Inc., help provide insurance for the event and cover some other costs associated with the event overall. Steffeck noted that such donations are important for the parade to occur every year.

The Christmas Ships Parade is divided into two fleets, one for the Columbia River and one for the Willamette. Each fleet averages about 15 boats on any given night, Steffeck said. Several parade runs feature a combined fleet from both rivers, and Steffeck said that those events may feature over 30 boats.

According to the parade website, the only time the parade is canceled is due to adverse weather, and the determination is made a half hour before the boats are scheduled to sail.

The annual Christmas Ships Parade will begin its series of evening parades on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers on Fri., Dec. 1.
Residents of both Washington and Oregon will line the shores of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and pack riverside restaurants to view the procession of brightly lit boats during the Christmas Ships Parade. Photo by Mike Schultz

The first run of the parade will occur on Fri., Dec. 1. The parade will begin at 7:00 p.m. The combined fleet will assemble at the James M. Gleason Boat Ramp off of Marine Drive in Portland, and proceed up river past Salty’s Restaurant. It will then proceed along the Oregon side of Hayden Island toward North Portland Harbor. The vessels will then return past Salty’s, and the fleet is expected to be out on the river for approximately two hours.

The Christmas Ships Parade will run from Dec. 1 through Dec. 21 for 15 nights. No parades will occur on Dec. 3, 4, 5, 11, 12 and 18.

For more information about the Christmas Ships Parade as well as a full schedule, visit http://www.christmasships.org/.

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