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Aug. 18, 2022

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Come sail away with Christmas ships

Group marks 60th year making holidays bright on rivers

9 Photos
Christmas ships will take the area rivers starting Dec.
Christmas ships will take the area rivers starting Dec. 5. Photo Gallery

The Christmas Ship Parade website has routes, schedules and more information on the 60th anniversary celebration:

The Christmas Ships parade and its array of colorfully decorated boats is one of the annual highlights of the holiday season in Vancouver.

But like many things, it comes from humble beginnings.

The event started with a single sailboat in 1954 as an event organized by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, but it didn’t grow large until about 25 or 30 years ago, said Bert Burgess, who’s sailed with the parade for 37 years.

“It struggled along for the first 10 to 20 years,” Burgess said. “There were about 10 guys that donated their time and money every year, and after a while the Coast Guard had to withdraw, so with no money, the same group organized itself into what was basically a club.”

There’s no mention in The Columbian newspaper archives of the Christmas ships parade for at least its first 10 years. In the early years the event stayed relatively unorganized, with other ships joining in and randomly appearing on the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

The Christmas Ship Parade website has routes, schedules and more information on the 60th anniversary celebration: <a href=""></a>

“They’d just go out and encourage people to join them,” Burgess said. “It began to grow from that. When I joined in around 1977, there were only about 10 of us on the river.”

He got involved after watching the ships pass by a houseboat party he was attending. Burgess said was so impressed he called the Coast Guard and they told him how to join.

“They just told me to put a couple lights on my boat and come out,” Burgess said. “So I did. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

It wasn’t until about 25 years ago that the parade, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, got organized and started putting out a detailed schedule, said Doug Romjue, the Columbia River fleet captain.

Romjue joined the parade in 1992 and became fleet leader about 12 years ago. Since he began participating, the schedule has become much more fixed and organized, he said.

“I truly watch my time like a hawk,” Romjue said. “I don’t want it to go past 9 p.m., because everybody gets tired. We try really hard to start at 7 p.m. and end at 9 p.m., at least on the nights when that’s the schedule. Two hours is plenty of time.”

During his time, the parade has grown to about 55 to 60 boats every year, Romjue said. They are split into two groups, one with about 20 ships that travel along the Willamette River in Portland and the other that parades along both sides of the Columbia River, with somewhere between 40 and 60 ships.

The routes were, at least to some extent, determined by financial support, Burgess said.

After the Coast Guard Auxiliary pulled out, the group realized it needed insurance to protect participants from liability issues. So the club incorporated into Christmas Ships Inc. to protect members, he said.

“And as we were doing that, and growing, we found out we needed to have a parade permit, so we had to do some fundraising,” Burgess said. “We solicited some of the restaurants on the river that were benefiting from having customers watch the boats, and they supported us. After that we decided if they were going to help us, we better make sure we parade in front of them to help them.”

That’s why the ships regularly travel near waterfront restaurants on both rivers.

In the early years, parade participants wouldn’t dream of taking a night off. But as the event has grown and spread to more areas, the captains decided on a couple of breaks.

This year they’re taking Dec. 7 and Dec. 15 off, Romjue said.

“We found we really needed that,” Romjue said. “It takes a lot of time and effort and having a few breaks makes it much more enjoyable for us.”

The Dec. 7 break is because of the annual party for captains at Beaches Restaurant and Bar in Vancouver. The second break is more just to take a breather before the parade ends on Dec. 21.

This year, in a relatively low-key recognition of the 60th anniversary, ships this year will have a “60” somewhere in their displays.

“The 50th year we made a bunch of them that looked the same,” Romjue said. “This year, everyone is making them themselves, so the designs may be more interesting.”

Romjue is also bringing out a shooting star design for his ship this year, although thinking about it now he’s not sure it’s one of his best ideas.

“It’s supposed to be a shooting star, but those are very difficult to create,” he said with a laugh. “It’s more like a compass rose. It has red and green swooping lights to the back of the boat, like a shooting star. I bet we’ll get people saying, ‘What the heck is that?’ “

Burgess, who’s 87, said he’s stuck with the same design for about 15 years now. It includes a road runner, a window with flowers in it and a snowman.

“Back when I was young and virile, I’d change it every year, but I got to this one and people really like it,” Burgess said. “Besides, it’s a lot of work to come up with a new one every year.”

Newer captains tend to be more enthusiastic about switching up designs. A couple this year have decided to go with a pink ribbon theme in support of breast cancer research and treatment.

“Another guy has a design based on the leg lamp from ‘A Christmas Story,’ ” Romjue said. “And there’s another with a champagne bottle that pops and pours into a glass.”

Another one of the new captains plans to have a crab and seafood theme in honor of Salty’s restaurant, where he works, Romjue said.

“We picked up a lot of new members this year,” Romjue said. “I think we have eight or nine new boats. It would be interesting if we get 60 this year for the 60th celebration.”

And Romjue and Burgess said there’s room for more.

“It’s still open to anybody that wants to go out with us,” Burgess said.

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