At the start of each February, organizers for San Diego's Parade of Lights put the event's theme for the coming year on their website. "That's when we start to make drawings of our 41-foot Hatteras," says Dick Wold, who is president of the Chula Vista Yacht Club and has participated in the parade for the past eight years. "We do that off and on until summer, when I start building things at home. During Thanksgiving weekend, I take the parts to the boat and assemble them there. If the display is too big -- we've done a volcano and a 24-foot Eiffel Tower -- then I construct everything on the boat."

After all that work several years ago, says Wold, "our 5.5-kilowatt generator died five minutes before the parade started, and we couldn't go. It was very disappointing." But Wold scrambled, ordering a starter motor that was overnight-freighted from Chicago in the nick of time, and his team made the second sailing a week later.

"Aloha Holiday" is the theme for this year's Parade of Lights, which had its first sailing on Sunday. People can catch the second this Sunday, December 19. The parade is staged by the Port of San Diego. It starts at the west end of Shelter Island and ends in front of the Coronado public docks at Peohe's Restaurant. The best places to watch the parade are at the north and south ends of the Embarcadero, the park behind Seaport Village, and the bayfront walkway on Coronado.

Organizing committee chairman David Bond says that a group of boaters casually initiated the parade 33 years ago with 10 to 20 boats. In 2001, "with the economic impact of September 11," he says, "our sponsorship dried up and, five days before the event, we started planning to cancel it. We're on a shoestring budget. But the Port and the Science Applications International Corporation gave us the money we needed with one day to go.

"So we've never had to cancel," adds Bond, who cites heavy fog and light rain as the main obstacles to parades past. "Of course, we would cancel for safety reasons," he says. "But there have been no accidents, although 60 to 100 boats milling about to line up for the start is quite an adventure." One glitch Bond remembers is when a competitor's lighting went out as his boat approached a judging station.

Do boaters from other California communities enter San Diego's parade? "No," Bond tells me, "these events have become popular in harbors up and down California. So only local boaters participate in ours. What people do is take PVC pipe and bendable material to create a framework they like. They attach that to the boat and put the lighting on the frame. But there are more than lights. When we used the theme of 'Christmas Around the World' one year, a boat had a big globe on it."

"I've decorated things all my life," says Dick Wold, who won first place several years ago. "When we had a theme of 'Christmas Under the Sea,' our lighting created the effect of a carousel turning and figures going up and down on it. We always try to have animated elements on the boat. They either move physically or the lights make it appear that they do."

Two parade entrants at opposite ends of the spectrum have fascinated Wold in recent years. The first is the Eagle II, a huge yacht "that has a helicopter sitting on the roof of its aft deck. The guy decorates the helicopter, too," says Wold, "and he does a nice job."

The second was the kayak club that towed a sailboat. "Three or four guys paddled their kayaks in front of a 16-foot Hobie Cat. It was a kind of an ecological statement. But at the end of the parade, they were exhausted. I don't think they'll do it again," says Wold.

I ask Wold about differences between the Parade of Lights and Pasadena's Rose Parade. "It's less that ours is on the water than that it's at nighttime," he says. "Rose Parade floats have all those pretty flowers. In darkness you don't see any of our superstructure, and we paint our wires black. Seeing my boat in the daytime is not a pretty sight."-- Joe Deegan

Thirty-Third Annual San Diego Bay Parade of Lights San Diego Bay Sunday, December 19 5:30 to 9 p.m. Cost: Free Info: www.sdparadeoflights.org

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