It was 1964 when a small band of Tri-City boaters first braved the winter cold and took their boats out of hibernation, decorated them with festive holiday lights and cruised up and down the Columbia River.
The boaters were members of the Clover Island Yacht Club, and that impromptu parade 50 years ago has turned into a major event today with nearly two dozen boaters taking part and hundreds of Tri-Citians braving the chilly temperatures to watch the vibrant light show as it glides down the river.
The history of the parade is a bit sketchy, but it’s believed it became a regular event in the mid-1970s, said Larry Kuga, the parade’s coordinator.
“And not all the boaters are from the yacht club, either,” Kuga said. “We encourage all boaters to come join us, and we usually always pick up some new people each year.”
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Any boater who would like to take part in this year’s parade, which is Dec. 5-6, is encouraged to attend a skipper’s meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Clover Island Yacht Club, 104 Clover Island Drive, Suite 101, in Kennewick.
Benton County Sheriff’s Office and Coast Guard representatives will provide safety tips for those participating, Kuga said. The Coast Guard Auxiliary and sheriff’s department also will have boats on the water providing guidance for the boats during the cruise.
“Boating in the dark during winter can be dangerous,” he said. “The water is running fast, and it’s very cold, so the driver has to stay alert and follow the formation. Participants are encouraged not to indulge in adult beverages until the parade is over and the boats are back at the dock.”
The boats try to stay about 100 yards behind each other as they follow the lead boat, driven by boater Rod Mineke of Pasco, who’s taken part in the parade since 1999. Mineke said he’s had a couple of close calls during past parades but mostly everything goes smoothly, he said.
“I remember once as we were making the turn in Richland to come back down the river, my wife discovered a pinhole in the antifreeze hose, which caused smoke everywhere,” Mineke said. “So, I had to shut down one motor and finish the parade with the other motor.”
Mineke says the frigid cold of winter, hours of decorating his boat, the expense of gas and lights won’t keep him from cruising up the river for the lighted boat parade.
“There’s a sense of community pride when we do this,” he said. “It’s a good excuse to take the boat out, but mostly because it brings so many people joy. So many families come to the parks along the river to watch the boat parade, so it’s a definite family friendly event.”
Kuga said about 20 boats will take part this year, ranging in length from small runabouts to 55-foot yachts. All are lit up with holidays lights — some have animated holiday creatures or sports themes.
And the only thing that would halt the parade is if the infamous Tri-City wind decides to blow, Mineke said.
“We’ve had it snow during this parade in the past, and once the wind started blowing so hard after we started, we had to turn around and head back to the docks,” he said. “That was the only time the parade was canceled. It’s hard enough guiding a boat safely in the dark, but add wind and that can be deadly.”
The boats plan to leave Clover Island in Kennewick about 6 p.m. both days. They will then cruise slowly upriver to Howard Amon Park, and then make a wide, slow turn before heading back downstream. The entire cruise lasts about three hours.