Lay Lake Christmas Boat Parade a floating gallery of lights

Carolanne Roberts

Lakes on a winter night are silent things. Flapping with little waves when a wind sweeps in. Luxurious views you can only see in your imagination. Inky black places not the least bit inviting – unless, of course, it’s the holiday season and there’s a boat parade.

Take the happy event on Lay Lake the second Saturday of every December, which finds spectators and a fleet of festooned pontoons reporting with glee to Beeswax Creek Park, where the evening commences at 5:15. People flock to watch the boats pass Paradise Point Marina (5:50), Cedar Creek (6:30), Okomo Marina (7) and Bozos Marina (7:35) with church groups, Boy Scouts, holiday parties and lake residents camping out on shorelines flickering with campfires and a s’more or two.

It’s a merry toss-up as to who’s the most delighted – the boaters or the up to 3,000 spectators along the way. “I wish I could show you a video of what we see from out on the water,” says Joe Sullivan, who has led the event for at least 10 years (or is it 16 or 17? He’s having too much fun to count). “The best part for those of us on boats is nearing the people and hearing the kids go ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh.’ You can hear them shout ‘Merry Christmas’ to us – and that is why we do it. My daddy was a founding member of the HOBO association, and it’s also my last tie to him.”

‘The people are waiting’

Whipping up a parade each year is a combination of pluck, luck, prep and the weather. “I don’t think we’ve ever ridden it in shorts – it can get cold out there on the water,” Sullivan continues. “Fog and too much rain can literally stop the parade – you can’t navigate in fog – but mostly we just get out there and go. We take it slow and just try not to hit the boat in front of us. The only rule in this whole thing is safety. And we know the people are waiting.”

Joe Sullivan decorates his boat for the Lay Lake Christmas boat parade. (Bernard Troncale / Shorelines)

The sheriff’s boat sets the pace (with the Water Patrol at the end and the Coast Guard Auxiliary in between). Pontoons drift at an idle – maybe 5 mph or less – along the 10-mile course. Last year’s boat count numbered some 30-plus vessels (though it’s hard to count them when you’re in one yourself, Sullivan says with a laugh). And each is a floating gallery of colored lights and themes.

One of the years they staged a contest, Butch Whitten’s boat, shared with friend Ralph Lucas, won hands-down. “People on the shore think it’s different boats going by, but it’s all ours,” he says of operating 16 buttons, each of which switches the light show to a new scene. “You look once, turn away, then look back and see something completely different – all with music from Elvis’ ‘Blue Christmas’ album.”

For instance, there’s a brightly lighted dolphin jumping an arc over the boat. Blink. A helicopter with spinning rotors. Blink. A Christmas tree blazing with multicolors. Blink. Santa and a sleigh pulled by running reindeer (which wore out but may return to the repertoire).

“We don’t have an artistic bone in our bodies,” Whitten says. “We just string those lights on this old houseboat of ours that has a little cabin sitting on it – the kind of a hybrid they used to make in Sylacauga years ago – and we just leave the lights strung on there all year long. Christmas is the only time we crank up that boat.”

Joe Sullivan says his role in the annual Lay Lake Christmas Boat Parade is his last remaining tie to his father, who was one of the founders of the Lay Lake HOBO Association. (Bernard Troncale / Shorelines)

At this time of year, they crank it a lot. “Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s we’ll go out on the water, turn on those scenes and see who flashes their house lights at us – that’s the way we know they see us. And, of course, if we think of a new scene each year, we add it. Colored lights on the water at night look good; that’s what it boils down to.” Whitten, by the way, participated in the first Lay Lake Christmas Boat Parade 24 years ago.

Jim Davis, who also won during the brief contest era, struts the same theme each year. “Kids love trains,” he says, “So I made a frame and strung it with lights and used hula hoops with lights for the wheels. I use PVC pipe to curve the roof over the engine. And last year I put a smoke stack on it and might put a second one on this year – maybe with dry ice with a spotlight to look like steam.”

The hula hoops gave way a while back to bigger, rope-lit metal wire wheels with a few “chasing lights” to add action. Davis invites friends for holiday cruising during the season, aiming his stern – choo-choo blazing – toward sloughs not included on the parade route. Like Whitten, he glories in the shouted greetings and is known to yell “Merry Christmas Back Atcha.”

Keeping it going

Sullivan, Whitten and Davis are boat parade veterans. Newcomer Brandy Contorno, who came to Lay Lake as a bride several years ago, is infusing the event with youthful passion while respecting its heritage. “Thank goodness for Brandy,” Sullivan says without hesitation. “She brings good energy.”

The spectators onshore enjoy seeing 30-plus boats tricked up with lights, but Joe Sullivan says what he sees and hears from his boat is pretty special, too. (Bernard Troncale / Shorelines)

Contorno, married to lake dweller Nick, attended the parade one year when the boat count sank to single digits – a rare but every-so-often occurrence. “I thought immediately that Lay Lake is a tight-knit community and that we needed to get the word out,” she said. With Sullivan’s blessing, she revved up social media, peppering Facebook sites like Layke Living [dedicated to all things Lay Lake]. They issued zippy, and very frequent, email blasts to the lake’s boating community. Then came the fliers bordered with bright holiday bulbs, appearing in prominent spots anywhere a lake resident might visit. The result: a swelling of numbers, bringing boats decorated by young and old alike.

“I love holiday lights in general,” Contorno admits, adding that their pontoon resembled “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” with its exuberance. “They’re kind of my thing at this time of year, so I just really wanted to help on this.” She adores the variety – a mixed bag of old-fashioned lights, anything marked down in price for after-holiday sales, and brighter-than-bright LED models. It’s definitely every designer for himself out there, with hodgepodge reigning as the prevalent style.

Rather than relax and reflect, the new parade promoter vows to surpass last year’s turnout both on land and water. One thing is certain: One more Contorno will be aboard the 2018 boat when baby Mac, due in February, joins the ranks. “We hope this will become his tradition, too,” she says. “And that Mac can someday keep the torch lit for his generation.”

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