When this year’s Christmas Ships parades take to the river to show off bright lights and merry spirits on cold December nights, all the skippers of the Columbia River fleet will be listening to one radio voice for guidance through the darkness.
Kat Pettersen of Longview was promoted to Columbia Fleet leader last year, at the last moment, when the coronavirus pandemic made the entire Christmas Ships project a little iffy, she said. Now, Pettersen and her husband, Pete, are leading the Columbia Fleet parade for a second year with their 42-foot long-range trawler, Points North III.
“It’s addictive,” Kat Pettersen said of the all-volunteer outing, which may involve as many as 70 different craft this year. “Christmas Shipping takes about two months out of our lives.”
“Everybody smiles when you go by,” Pete Pettersen said. “Everybody loves boats and everybody loves pretty lights.”
Kat Pettersen stays on the air with notes for the boats in her wake about speed, other river traffic — including gigantic, unlit cargo ships that cannot be seen — and debris that tends to flood the river after heavy rain. Logs bobbing in the water are a serious hazard that require slowing down and watching out, she said.
As fleet leader, she also takes a daytime ride on the Clark County Sheriff’s patrol boat to scan the river for hazards and obstacles, she said.
Meanwhile, husband Pete watches the radar and computer, keeping an eye on river depth. Pete added that he is Kat’s no. 1 fan.
“It’s really neat to see a woman fleet leader, which is very rare,” he said. Kat’s voice on the radio has inspired other spouses and women skippers to get on the air, he said.
The coronavirus caused a lot of churning in what this couple calls “the Christmas Ships family” as well as the wider boating world, they said. Many craft got bought and sold as people’s lives changed, with some folks seeking new ways to recreate outdoors while some longtime boaters got out of the water for good.
Locally, some seasoned Christmas Ships skippers dropped out last year; others worried that bringing lots of spectators close together on local shorelines could pose a health risk; and others were determined to parade anyway, the Pettersens said.
Last year’s parades went ahead in the end, but personal meet-and-greets on the docks were curtailed. That will still be true when this year’s outings get underway Dec. 2. Some seasoned skippers have decided to sail in newcomers’ boats and act as mentors, Kat Pettersen said.
Kat Pettersen’s paramount responsibility as fleet leader is emphasizing safety and good behavior for all skippers and their guests. Fortunately, she said, rowdiness on the water is rarely a problem. Those who do get rowdy tend to get hurt, Pete said.
Blue light special
Blue is the best color for lights shining on the water, Pete Pettersen said Saturday morning while strapping plastic-wrapped light strings to Points North III’s deck railings. That was under the roof of their parking spot and boathouse at the Tyee Yacht Club on East Marine Drive in Portland. Later, they said, the boat will get topped with a tall, lit-up angel, fashioned out of PVC pipes.
The Pettersens’ fixed street address is near Longview, they said, but they spend months per year traveling and living on their boat or in this boathouse, they said.
The couple worked together Saturday to tie their light strips and carefully shield them with foamy plastic so they’re visible from out there, but not visible to the crew.
“You want to make sure you’re not blinded by glare,” said Pete Pettersen, a retired ocean-tug captain who has been working on boats since age 8, he said.
His wife, Kat Pettersen, may be an intrepid person — she’s a pilot and motorcyclist — but she never expected a life on the water, she said. Sixteen years into it, she said, she still gets “horribly seasick” on the ocean, but not on calmer rivers, she said.
Now, Kat Pettersen has become such a Christmas Ships lover, she also organizes a local Christmas Ships parade for the Longview area on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, she said.
Last year, when weather was terrible and the parade to the Port of Camas-Washougal got canceled, Kat and Pete Pettersen made the journey anyway. Droves of local fans came to see them.
“We were a Christmas Ship parade of one,” Pete Pettersen said.