Christmas Ships fleet leader guides participants’ fancy maneuvers

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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On the web

The Christmas Ship Parade website has routes, schedules and more information on the 57th annual event.

Leading the Columbia River fleet of Christmas ships can be a bit like coaching and calling out football plays — although most sports coaches wouldn’t use names like Candy Cane Swirl and Ribbon Candy to describe their route patterns, said Doug Romjue, fleet leader.

For Romjue, who’s led the Columbia group for the past 10 years, coming up with a strategy and creating synchronized maneuvers for the colorful parade of boats is a big part of the seasonal fun. It’s a blast being able to guide the action, he said.

“Each night as the lead boat we try to decide what we’re going to do,” Romjue said. “If it’s bad weather we keep moving. It’s hard to do tight turns. But if the weather’s good we call out a lot of patterns, like Ribbon Candy or Candy Cane Swirl.”

You could consider the Christmas Ships Parade as a lazy family’s Christmas lights tour. All you have to do is get to the waterfront and park — and the lighted ships glide by, bringing dancing reindeer, Christmas trees and other glittering decorations into your view.

On a crisp, dark night it’s especially fun to watch the captains show off their fancy moves, Romjue said.

Some patterns, like Ribbon Candy, have been around for several years, so most of the other boat captains know how to follow along.

“Ribbon Candy, it’s a swirling pattern, like the candy,” Romjue said. “It’s easy for us to do, and I think it comes out really good. Candy Cane Swirl, it’s also like the candy, you sort of do a hook.”

Romjue, a retired engineer, thinks up a lot of synchronized patterns as he’s leading the parade, although it can be hard to coordinate moves that work for a fleet of more than 20 boats varying in size from 18-foot sailboats to 65-foot yachts.

“Sometimes it absolutely falls apart,” Romjue said. “After all, we don’t practice. Not at all. But sometimes it turns out great. It’s so much fun trying to orchestrate it, either way.”

Moving along with Romjue’s calls is pretty simple, said Peggy Moore, who captains the boat Knot Spare Time with her husband, John Moore. She wouldn’t want Romjue’s job of coordinating everything, she said.

Being in the parade becomes addicting, though. Friends always love to come along, and the views are wonderful, Moore said.

“It’s a different perspective when you’re inside one of the boats instead of onshore — especially when you do a maneuver like a Curtsy or Cartwheel — because you get to see all the other boats up close,” she said.

In the Curtsy maneuver, another that you probably wouldn’t find on a football field, the boats all turn to the right or left at the same time, then hold their positions and drift side by side for a few moments.

“It’s kind of like we’re tipping our hats or curtsying to the crowd,” Moore said.

The Moores, who live in Orchards, have been participating in the Christmas ship parade for 18 years. Their 32-foot ship is sometimes called the music boat because the couple play Christmas music to get everybody in the spirit.

That musical tradition started with former Columbia fleet leader Walt Sheffield, who died several years ago. Sheffield was the fleet leader for about 30 years and recruited the Moores to the parade.

He used to play Christmas music with chimes on his boat. One year when he got sick he asked the couple to fill in for him, Moore said.

“My husband has a tendency to start things and not let go of them, so after we did it that one year, he really wanted to keep going,” she said. “We gathered a bunch of music, and I have a playlist now of a lot of Christmas songs, and several chime songs. I like to play that as a tribute to Walt.”

One of the best parts for her is interacting with people on shore, she said. Sometimes when the boats get close, those watching from land will cheer or flash lights at them.

“The people on the shore really add to the fun of it,” Moore said. “We like to play our music really loud, too, so the crowds can hear it.”

The event started with just one sailboat in 1954 out of the Portland Yacht Club. But it rapidly grew so that today there are about 55-60 boats that participate. Those boats are split into two groups, one that travels along the Willamette River in Portland and the other that parades along both sides of the Columbia River.

As Columbia River fleet captain, Romjue leads about two-thirds of the fleet, with the other third heading to the Willamette. This year he’s working with about 35 other captains, he said.

“It’s sort of like being a manager of a team,” Romjue said. “Some of them don’t want to participate every night, or they don’t want to do certain things. Others are like my go-to guys that I can count on for anything.”

On the Willamette, which is a much narrower river than the Columbia, boats generally just sail up and down in a straight parade. Romjue said he prefers the Columbia because there’s a lot more room to move around and try out special moves.

He loves hearing feedback from viewers through the website, http://www.christmasships.org, about the maneuvers and if they looked cool from shore, he added.

“We hope it looks like these interesting patterns, but it’s really nice when we get feedback,” Romjue said. “It’s pretty special when we hear that we’re doing really well.”