Producer: Jule Gilfillan Videographers: Nick Fisher, Todd Sonflieth Editor: Tom Shrider
Special Thanks: Zhengqing Huang and Romen Lu Additional Video: Maria Swearingen
If you happen to be along the Willamette or Columbia rivers some evening this December, you’re likely to see a whimsical procession of a hippopotamus, Sasquatch and a water-skiing Santa gliding by.
Celebrating its 63rd year this season, the Christmas Ships Parade began in 1954 when a member of the Rose City Yacht Club wound some garland around his boat's railing and fired up a small generator to power a string of lights. That exhibition of DIY ingenuity kicked off what has become the longest-running Christmas ship parade in the country.
“We have a Willamette fleet that covers everything from downtown Portland, all the way up to Lake Oswego, and then we’ll come down and join the Columbia fleet; it goes from Camas all the way to St. Helens,” Christmas Ships president Ron Bielenberg told us in 2014.
As many as 60 glittering boats ply our local rivers for 14 or 15 days during the holiday season, executing choreographed maneuvers to the delight of the shoreline audience. One of the things that has kept this DIY tradition alive is that pretty much anyone with a seaworthy vessel and a working radio can participate.
“We have some training meetings and made a manual up for people — what a curtsy is and what a cartwheel is,” Bielenberg says, referring to the floating choreography.
The privately owned vessels range in size from 14 to 65 feet, and all the skippers take part on a voluntary basis, paying for fuel, insurance and all the decorations themselves. But the camaraderie and fun are worth it.
Veteran Christmas shipper Jon Bake has been at it for 17 years.
“Actually, with 17 years, I don’t have much seniority,” he laughed. “There’s a couple of boats that are more than 30 and lots of them in the 20-year category. It’s very addictive doing this, you get into it, you just can’t quit.”
For many of those years, Jon’s vessel displayed an elaborate “surfing Santa.” But this time, he’s keeping it simple by stringing a few strands of regular old Christmas lights across his railings.
“It’s a freestyle theme,” he joked. “We’re going to call it “Boat with Lights.”
But even “freestyle” lights look pretty magical on the water.
“It’s amazing. I mean people that haven't seen it go nuts,” Bake said.
Portland resident Claire Filardo comes just about every night the flotilla unties from the River Place Marina near the Hawthorne Bridge.
“I absolutely love coming here,” she told us as she waved to a passing boat featuring a team of leaping dolphins pulling Santa’s sleigh. “I think I come every night.”
On this night, Filardo’s reverie is punctuated by the sudden blare of a siren and a bright spotlight: Richard Rich’s fireboat-themed "Razzle Dazzle" treatment. After Rich administers this good-natured shock, he switched on a smiley face.
“That’s so if we sneak up on ya and scare the heck out of ya, we can back up and laugh at ya.”
Filardo responded on-cue with a big laugh: “That was awesome!”
This year, Rich’s "Razzle Dazzle" fire engine will lead a special tribute in honor of Ron Bielenberg, the former firefighter and veteran Christmas Ships leader, who passed away in September from cancer. Look for an illuminated red “fallen firefighter” emblem on the boats.