Holiday Boat Parade pros aim to dazzle with creativity and good cheer

By Evan Henerson

Greg and Laverne Potter’s Valhalla (left) delighted crowds in 2013, and Pamela Johnson’s Invictus won Best Sail honors in 2009
Photo by Pat Reynolds

Want your watercraft to make a splash during the boat parade? Don’t go for subtlety.

“If you think you have enough — whether it’s lights or something else — you probably don’t,” said Laverne Potter, who along with husband Greg will enter the parade for a 13th year aboard the Valhalla. “So add some more. And go big.”

Indeed, bigness and creativity often make for a winning combination for parade participants. The more festive elements you can include as part of your display, the more likely you are to wow the judges. Boat owners have been known to plan for months and, in
some cases, spend thousands of dollars on lights, inflatables, animation and other decorations.

Consider it the nautical equivalent of gussying up your house for the holiday season, except that you can’t leave the display up for weeks leading up to the big event and you’ll have to immediately dismantle everything the following day.

Since many of the same boaters have been involved for multiple years, the event has an “old home week” feel to it, say the participants, from the pre-parade check-in meetings to the post-parade lunch at a designated yacht club the following day.

But there is a level of competition. As a first-timer eight years ago, Pamela Johnson hung her light display early and checked and double-checked it repeatedly during the days before the parade, only to realize later that as she was building it, she was also revealing her design to possible competitors.

“I don’t do that anymore,” Johnson said, with a laugh. “That was a lesson. Somebody tried to duplicate my design, but they couldn’t and I won anyway. Now I just keep it quiet.”

In 2009, the year she earned a first place honor, Johnson festooned her boat with more than 50 boxes of lights. The parade revelers wore costumes so heavy and devoted so much energy to dancing and waving that the cruise was a veritable workout. During last year’s parade, Johnson and her husband John Beabes went extravagant and covered her 35-foot Yorktown sailboat, Invictus, with Peanuts and Disney characters. This year the Invictus will not compete, but still participate in the parade with no shortage of holiday spirit.

“Between the music and waving and the shouting and getting everyone involved, it’s always a wonderful experience,” Johnson said.

An inflatable Santa and assorted reindeer will bedazzle the deck of Mata Hari, the 41-ft. Aeroliner owned by Mike Feig and wife Maro. There will be plenty of white lights, and Christmas music will sound out from the radio. Longtime Marina del Rey residents, the Feigs had watched the parade for 18 years before they decided to join the fun.

Parade preparation is an event for the Feigs — from the advance planning to the three or four days of installation to the Friday night “all hands on deck” final decorating effort.

“It’s good for the spirit of the holidays and Marina del Rey, for all of the people who come and watch it,” said Mike Feig. “It’s about the dedication of all the people who do this work and light up their boats.”

In 2016, after 12 consecutive years of holiday parading, the Potters took a night off, electing instead to be spectators. “Because I participate, I know what the boat in front of me and what the boat behind me look like, but I told my wife, ‘Honey, we have never actually seen the boat parade. Let’s watch the parade’” Greg Potter said.

They’ll return for the 2017 event, promising that not an inch of their 32-foot Grand Banks craft Valhalla will be un-decorated. Christmas is Laverne Potter’s favorite holiday, and she collects new regalia every year, which is stored in the family’s garage until it comes time to haul it all down to the marina. The decorating effort often becomes what Greg Potter calls “a Fibber McGee’s closet approach.”

“We just take everything we have in the garage, bring it down to the boat and plug it in,” Potter said. “We try to theme it as best we can. We’ll definitely have blow-up Santas and reindeer and plenty of loud Christmas music.”

Greg Potter’s other love is aviation, so the Valhalla will have some flight elements as well, promises Laverne. The parade theme is “Let’s Dance,” so the Potters plan to deliver Santa’s Aerial Ballet.

The Potters have won multiple awards over the years, so they know how to address a theme. For the parade’s 50th anniversary, they obtained historical photos of past winners from the Chamber of Commerce and turned the Valhalla into a floating gallery.

The creativity won them parade honors, but Greg Potter maintains that where the boat parade is concerned, you can have a blast without tons of glitz.

“We’ll have corporations that will spend thousands of dollars on their boat’s animation, and then you’ll have a guy with a little outboard motor and half a dozen lights,” Potter said. “They both seem to enjoy the boat parade equally.”