Yacht Clubs Try to Outshine Each Other in Ring of Lights Contest

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Balboa (top) and Bahia Corinthian yacht clubs decorated for the holidays and the Ring of Lights contest last year.
— Photos by Bleu Cotton Photography ©

As the twinkling landside backdrop for the annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, the Ring of Lights home decorating contest is brighter than ever.

Both events kicked off this week, hosted by the Commodores Club of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Waterfront homes on Balboa and Harbor islands, Balboa Peninsula and Bayside Drive participate in the Ring of Lights contest. Decorations include a mixture of styles and themes, including traditional, modern, tech-focused, cozy, humorous, and more.

A group of about 10 Chamber Commodores make up the judging panel.

First-time Ring of Lights judge and Visit Newport Beach President and CEO Gary Sherwin said voting was a blast.

The homes are spectacular, he said, and the owners are so touched when they win. Sherwin was in awe of how honored the homeowners were by the surprise knock on the door (after jumping out of a boat and hurrying up the dock) with the banner showcasing their award.

“Their expressions were so good,” Sherwin said.

A checklist of criteria can only go so far in judging the waterfront properties, Sherwin said, it’s more about the first impression.

“When you first see it and it hits you, what your immediate response is… that reaction of ‘Oh wow,’” Sherwin said. “Those are the kind of things we’re looking at… What would strike you (on first look)?”

David Beek, Commodore for Balboa Yacht Club and co-chair of the Christmas Boat Parade, said the Ring of Lights added the “Best Yacht Club” award nearly 10 years ago to help encourage decorating in some “dark” areas in the harbor along the boat parade route.

As the boat parade was getting bigger and grander with more and more boats, they realized there were big swatches that remained dark, Beek explained.

“The yacht clubs were decorating fairly well, but once you threw competition into it, then you lit the fuse,” Beek said.

They tweaked the start point and a few things on the route to help encourage people to decorate. And it worked because they did, Beek said.

As more homes decorated it made the parade that much more special, he commented.

“They’re the backdrop for the boat parade,” Beek said.

It adds a lot because the yacht clubs properties are huge, thousands of square feet on the bay front, Beek pointed out.

Several clubs, including BYC and BCYC, take it very seriously since the award was introduced, Beek said.

Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club’s sign wrapped in lights.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

BCYC has won it four out of the last five years, BYC has won it twice, and American Legion Yacht Club won it once in 2013.

Both BYC and BCYC were confident they were taking home the award this year, but Balboa came out on top.

Sherwin, an honorary member of the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club, said Balboa just did a “really good job” this year.

There is a bit of a friendly rivalry between the clubs.

There is some “friendly jabbing” amongst the competing club members, Beek said.

The winning club earns a trophy and “fun bragging rights,” Beek said, and they are well represented at the parade awards dinner in January.

The friendly rivalry is a fun way to promote communication and interaction between the clubs, agreed Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club General Manager Scott Jones.

“When I see them…it’s fun,” Jones said, there is some ribbing between the two.

Even though the judging panel is comprised of mostly Balboa Yacht Club members, Bahia Corinthian has won several years.

“I’m sure it hurts a little bit,” Jones kidded.

Although one year, when the BYC general manager was retiring, Balboa earned the award.

“We were robbed,” Jones joked about one year when BYC won. “It’s tongue in cheek, but we were robbed that year.”

Jones, who lightheartedly admitted his bias, said they have the best lights and decorations compared to the other clubs in Newport that he’s “peeked in” on.

But the judging is very impartial, Beek emphasized, which is evident since BCYC has won several years in a row (which encourages the BYC members to take their “gloves off” and roll up their sleeves and take it up a level, Beek joked).

“We have a great relationship with BCYC,” Beek said.

Brian Marshall with the 2019 Ring of Lights winning banner for Balboa Yacht Club.
— Photo courtesy BYC

There are rumors that both BYC and BCYC hire outside companies to decorate, but both Beek and Jones insist they do all of their own work in-house.

“We decorate our own club” Beek confirmed. “Our interior is done completely by members…You can see a lot of the interior by going on the water. It looks like you’re looking into Santa Claus’ house.”

The outside is setup by BYC staff, Beek added. Brian Marshall plans it all out, he explained.

A BYC Christmas decorating committee made up of members hosts a potluck party each year and they spend a night eating, drinking and decorating, Beek explained.

“Decorating is huge at the club,” Beek said. “It’s decorated to a tee on the inside and outside.”

He admitted that BYC always decorated, but when Bahia Corinthian stepped up that “tipped the scales,” Beek said.

Jones explained that BCYC members and staff also do all the decorating at their club just down the street.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we do all our own decorating, we don’t have any outside companies come in,” Jones said. “Our members do a phenomenal job of decorating the club. We have a whole crew of volunteers.”

The members decorate every room inside the club. Each room has a Christmas tree, nine in total, all with similar décor, but slightly different.

The two full-time maintenance workers at the club install all the lights, place everything on the roof, and most of the physical outside work.

One of nine Christmas trees inside Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

They start working on the décor just before Thanksgiving, Jones confirmed. The lights don’t turn on until about the first of December.

When he drives home to Corona del Mar, he looks over at the club to see what he can add and what else he can do. New this year at BCYC are more colored lights on the roof.

He started adding more to the outside every year, including about 2,000 lights every year until they became “maxed out.”

“I try to do something additional each year,” Jones said.

Décor spreads down onto the docks as well. Lights go on pilings. Poles are wrapped like candy canes. The water-side of the clubs get the most attention, since the point of the Ring of Lights is to be a backdrop to the boat parade, but the street-side façade also gets done up.

“We look great from the street, but we look prettier at night from the water,” Jones said. “We put the effort out.”

Over at Balboa Yacht Club, there is no set theme, but they find patterns that work and then stick to them, enhancing the design each year. If they fall in a rut, they change it up, Beek said.

“When the yacht club next door wins multiple years in a row it gets the juices flowing and (helps us) think outside the box,” Beek said.

BYC recently completed a $6 million clubhouse renovation, which Beek said they hoped would help them stand out a little more this year.

“Last year, we were covered in construction fencing, that took us out of the running,” Beek said.

Now “you could probably see BYC… from space,” Beek joked.

Both Beek and Jones agreed that the Ring of Lights and the Boat Parade are tied together and help make the entire event even grander.

“It’s one big package for people coming into town,” Jones said. “It highlights the spirit of the season.”

“It’s one of the most magical things you can see,” Beek said. “There is nothing like seeing a good fireworks show over the lighted homes and lighted boats in the harbor… With the light reflecting off the water…Very few places in the world that you can see something that dramatic.”

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