Behind the Scenes of the Boat Parade

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“The Last Hurrah” decorated for the 2012 Christmas Boat Parade
“The Last Hurrah” decorated for the 2012 Christmas Boat Parade

Unlike those in the legendary Rose Parade, entrants in the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade can claim accurately that they’re competing with real “floats.”

Instead of flowers, of course, the 100 vessels expected to participate in the parade this year will feature both electrical and chemical lights, from single glow sticks pinned to the hat brims and life jackets of kayakers to super-sophisticated circuit boards and computers that control many thousands of multi-colored, animated LED lights on mega-yachts.

Few people watching the parade will realize the creative and technical efforts and man hours that make this parade one of the most popular holiday events in the country.

Owners of the larger vessels often spend up to six months designing their light shows around the theme selected each year by the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce. This year’s theme is “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

For the past five out of six years, the Sweepstakes Winner has been the yacht “Last Hurrah” (an 80’ Ocean Alexander), entered by Rob Meadows of Newport Beach, along with his sisters and mother, owners of one of the largest electric contracting company on the West Coast: Morrow-Meadows, Inc. It’s an understatement to say that they know lights.

According to sister and master planner Cathy Vick, preparing “Last Hurrah” is akin to a theater production because there are so many elements to coordinate.

“The first planning session began last June, after the theme was announced,” she said.    Their creative team includes veteran interior and theater set designer Neil Caplin, Jerry Clowes (fabrication and welding), yacht captain Shaun Crossman, and Meadow’s wife, Sandy, who gets down and dirty as she sews much of the countless yards of fabric backdrop. Vick coordinates the on-board holiday events for the company’s hundreds of corporate clients and many family friends.

“It’s not unusual for us to review up to eight concepts and drawings before all decide on the final design,” said Caplin, who originated this year’s boat theme around the ice cream soda shop in the TV series, “Happy Days.”

The on-board elements supporting that theme include that giant soda shop at the stern, and a 20-foot Christmas tree mid ship festooned with records, musical instruments and musical notes. On the bow will be a full stage, whose backdrop is a giant jukebox. A 50s band will bring to life all of the classics found on 45 rpm records. And tens of thousands of computer-choreographed light-emitting diodes will bring to light everything else on board.

As every ship needs a keel off of which to build the rest of the vessel, “Last Hurrah’s” light shows need a sturdy foundation. This task falls to fabricator/welder Clowes. Engineering and building the framework for the light show has its special challenges, he revealed.

“First, the set must be able to withstand wind loads. A lot of design work goes into making sure the set appears solid, but lets the wind through. Also, the welded armature can’t mar the boat in any way” when it’s finally fitted and anchored to deck and superstructure.

Structural fabrication started in July, and took four months to complete, Clowes said.    Once in place, a dozen workers attach each light by hand into the animated grid. To make sure there are no failures during the parade, Clowes goes along at least three out of the five evenings, constantly checking on the assembly’s integrity. Several years ago, while underway, he had to transfer from the “mother ship” to the towed and animated dinghy to effect repairs. The challenges are as unpredictable as the weather without a barometer.

So what’s the most important consideration in designing and building a float?

“The safety of everyone on board,” said Crossman, the boat’s skipper since “Last Hurrah” first entered the parade six years ago. “We make sure that all electronics are grounded to avoid shocks, and that people can move about without tripping over anything.”

Another challenge, said Crossman, is designing everything so that when installed and removed, not a scratch mars the pristine finish of the yacht.

Of course, navigating in a convoy with others in close proximity, including spectator boats that don’t necessarily adhere to the rules of the road, presents still another challenge. To enhance safety under way, Shaun positions lookouts on the bow and stern, and all are in radio contact throughout the parade.

As with all of the participating boats’ captains, safety is first and foremost for the Orange County Harbor Patrol, the marine arm of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and the main agency that oversees Newport Harbor all year.

According to Sgt. Dave Ginther, all of the involved public agencies (Coast Guard, Fire Department, Life Guards) meet with the boat owners to emphasize safety and procedures, including traffic control and boat separation.

“After all,” he said, “we want people to enjoy the event – and to be safe.”

Contact the writer at [email protected]

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