bpBy Pat Reynolds

Saturday marks 51 years since a handful of boats circled a then brand-new Marina del Rey for the community’s first ever Holiday Boat Parade — a remarkable milestone for an idea that started with just a few creative sailors and some Christmas lights.
During this year’s festivities under the theme “Holiday Magic,” NBA legend Phil Jackson and Los Angeles Lakers President Jeanie Buss will be acting as grand marshals, a sign of the parade’s continued vitality.
Back in those first days, before celebrity grand marshals and giant fireworks displays, a bunch of boats in the nearly barren harbor simply strung some colorful lights over the spreaders or fly-bridge of their vessels and circled the harbor to celebrate Christmas boater-style.
Today, thousands of people from all around the Greater Los Angeles area line the sidewalks around the water to witness how creative the boating breed can be and take in a unique expression of the holiday spirit. Folding chairs and blankets are the order of the day for spectators who are guaranteed a hearty blend of Christmas spirit and homespun LED (light emitting diode) artistry.
Marina del Rey and its signature parade have come a long way since the inaugural 1963 outing of some 20 decorated boats that rounded a course in a harbor which had very few buildings, no public park and not even a separated breakwall at its entrance.
The first non-commercial boat in the Marina was also named the best-decorated in what was then called the Christmas Boat Parade. The Pez Espada, an 85-foot motor sailor, was owned by George and Elizabeth Floyd and maintained by a young man named Jack Sells. Jack had the Pez’s rigging adorned with lights and a full choir singing on her decks as she passed by the Pieces of Eight restaurant (now Whiskey Reds), where the judges were located.
Sells was also in charge of the very first boat in the harbor, a fireboat that patrolled the area. He laughingly said at the time that he and the Harbor Patrol would make the rounds, but since there were no other boats the job was quite easy.
Longtime Marina del Rey resident and cofounder of the Marina del Rey Historical Society Willie Hjorth remembers those first days as less of a public spectacle and more of a bonding celebration between the few boaters who inhabited the new space. Hjorth later became a driving force in the progression and modernization of the parade, which led to events including more than 100 boats. Under her watch, parade participation broke records that still stand today.
The Marina was a more intimate place in the early to mid 1960s. Without a detached breakwall, a powerful ocean surge would often roll in and wreak havoc for the few boats inhabiting the space that now harbors over 4,000 vessels. Boaters would band together and help each other manage the chaos.
Illustrating how small and tight knit the early community was, one of the first Marina del Rey tenants, Margie Bragg, said in an interview that the entire town came to watch the first parade at the Pieces of Eight and there was room for everyone.
“Twice we had a Christmas tree on a raft out in the middle of the main basin, with a generator to light it,” Bragg recalled of the first few parades. “We kept it there throughout the holiday season. John Erskine and my husband, Steve, took turns rowing out every night with gasoline to keep the lights burning.”
Thanks to the driving force of the main boater advocacy organization of the time, the Pioneer Skippers Boat Owners Association, the boat parade began to become something significantly more substantial by 1968.
Hjorth said a definite turning point was when parade organizers looked to people affiliated with the Tournament of Roses Parade to share the plethora of knowledge they had accumulated about how to run a holiday event.
In the early days, “We all thought that if you had 20 strands of lights you were really great,” Hjorth said. With some help from Pasadena, “We had some decorating seminars.”
Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, boats began to reflect the influence of the Rose Parade and the city of Los Angeles began to take notice. By this time Burton Chance Park had been built in the heart of the Marina and was a perfect viewing area for city residents.
As years passed, LED bulbs, more compact generators and years of experience yielded more sophisticated and ambitious designs. Celebrity grand marshals became part of the tradition, citywide press coverage ensued and Marina del Rey’s streets were filled with spectators watching a spectrum of lights reflect off the harbor’s calm waters.
Hjorth said there was a stretch where the creativity and affection for the event was contagious and the interest sincere, but around 1990, volunteerism began to fade and participation numbers reflected the dilemma.
Shifts in lifestyle seemed to have affected the parade, but it remained and continues to be an event with character and roots that will likely always exist in this area. Organizers for this year’s event are very excited about this 51st edition — particularly the involvement of Buss and Jackson.
“Having Phil and Jeanie has really given us a lot of energy this time around,” said Boat Parade President Cindy Williams. “We truly think this one is going to be amazing.”
After the fireworks go off at 5:55 p.m., expect a wide array of powerboats and sailboats adorned with lights configured in a seemingly impossible way. There will also be bands playing traditional holiday music, crusty old boaters dressed as Santas and sounds of little kids screaming salutations across the evening’s calm water. Hundreds of local boaters, as we have done for half a century, will put on a show, free of charge, for our neighbors.
The Marina del Rey Holiday Boat Parade runs from 6 to about 8 p.m., with prime viewing at Fisherman’s Village, Burton Chace Park and a stretch near Marina del Rey Landing at the end of Bora Bora Way. For more information, visit mdrboatparade.org.