Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade brings nautical joie de vivre down to a neighborhood scale

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

Santa and helpers travel at a leisurely pace during last year’s fun-sized  Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade Photo by Paul M J Suchecki

Santa and helpers travel at a leisurely pace during last year’s fun-sized
Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade
Photo by Paul M J Suchecki

Sunday marks the return of the annual Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade, a colorful and carefree grassroots event founded 33 years ago to help coalesce community spirit in a neighborhood like no other.

Under the theme “Holiday in Paradise,” the parade kicks off at 4 p.m. at the intersection of Eastern and Carroll canals.

“It’s my favorite event on the canals,” said Sandy Berens, the parade chairperson for the past 15 years. “It always attracts a crowd and has strong local support.”

Saturday’s larger and much more widely known Marina del Rey Boat Parade gets more regional attention (and some in the canals like it that way), but that helps this nautical-themed neighborhood block party keep its funky-but-amiable vibe.

Even when fully decorated, the boats are small — they have to be low enough to scoot under the canals’ low bridges, as Santa found out with a cold swim one year — and they move close together, allowing participants and spectators to share a more intimate experience. Also, due to the smaller scale, the parade is very kid-friendly.

Despite the size limitations, the rowboats, kayaks and rafts are festooned with crowd-pleasing creativity. One of the most popular boats from years past was decorated to resemble one of the Red Car electric trolleys that used to ply what is now Pacific Avenue.

Most of the watercraft is human-powered by paddles and oars. Occasionally a vision from a simpler time will glide past as boys pole a raft through the placid waters like something out of “Tom Sawyer.” Recognizing that paddling the entire canal network can be tiring, Berens explained that for the event small electric fishing motors are also allowed.

The original Venice canals were built in 1905 by developer Abbot Kinney and stretched 16 miles through the city. The grand boulevards running through Windward Circle were once canals, but that didn’t last long: many were constructed poorly with unreinforced concrete and didn’t always flush as intended. After Venice’s 1926 annexation by the city of Los Angeles, most of the canals were filled in to accommodate increased auto traffic.

The mile and a half of canals that remain, modeled on Kinney’s originals and built a short time later, became so run down that this now tony neighborhood was a haven for artists and bohemians.

“In the 60s, you could rent a canal house for $30 a month,” said Venice historian Jeffrey Stanton.

Though there were many attempts to restore the canals, it took until 1976 and the establishment of the Venice Canals Association to come up with a comprehensive plan.

In 1982 the canals were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. That year saw the first canals boat parade, a far simpler affair than today’s spectacle. A full decade later, canal restoration work began. It took a year to remove tons of contaminated sediment and detritus while rebuilding the waterways’ banks. Now original bungalows rub shoulders with contemporary corner lot mansions like the Royer House, designed by acclaimed architect Steven Ehrlich.

As holiday lights sparkle from the boats, the decorated homes and bridges that contribute to the canals iconic character form a festive holiday backdrop. In fact, holiday decoration has become a neighborly competition, with judges choosing winners on Saturday.

A panel of judges will also award prizes for boat parade entries. There is no entry fee, but there are prizes. To register your boat, contact Sandy Berens at sbofcourse@aol.com.

The Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade starts at 4 p.m. Sunday at the intersection of Eastern and Carroll canals. Arrive early to secure a good viewing spot.

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