It was a dark and (somewhat) stormy Saturday night in December 1992. More than 30 boats lit up DC’s waterfront, draped in twinkling lights and ready to usher in the holiday season. In the end, however, just five boat captains braved the rough winter waters and sailed their way up the Washington Channel for what was the city’s first-ever holiday boat parade.
This Saturday, December 3, will mark the 30th anniversary of that maiden voyage. This time, more than 60 boats will deck their hulls for the District’s Holiday Boat Parade at the Wharf. Starting at 7 p.m., the parade of decorated boats will sail about a mile, from Hains Point to the Municipal Fish Market in Southwest DC.
The event has grown beyond just boats in the past 30 years. On land from 6 to 9 p.m., there will also be live music; fireworks; face painting; a beer, wine, and whiskey garden; a fire pit and s’mores; an ice rink; and a chance to snap a photo with Santa.
”The genesis of the parade was actually a competition among the boaters who lived along the waterfront at the Gangplank Marina, and those who belonged to the Capital Yacht Club, who would decorate their [docked] boats every holiday,” says Barbara Ehrlich, who helped to organize the first parade in 1992.
Businesses and restaurants along the Southwest Waterfront made up what was then known as the Washington Waterfront Association, which would award prizes like restaurant meals and hotel stays for residents with the best decorations.
As both a secretary and an event planner for the Washington Waterfront Association, Ehrlich wrote press releases to newspapers and letters to neighboring boat communities, floating the word up and down the Anacostia River about the maritime holiday parade.
She also was heavily involved in finding judges every year. Today, Ehrlich calls herself a “retired citizen who has aged in place in Southwest Washington.” Ehrlich is no longer organizing the event, but she’ll still be at the judge’s table–with a great view of all the ships passing in the night–helping to decide who should win the aptly-named Founders Award.
“Happy that I can say 30 years later, I’ve never missed one of the parades. And I’m happy to still be a part of it,” Ehrlich says. “It’s a great part of my life.”
While the waterfront looks very different now than it did for the first boat parade 30 years ago, the spirit hasn’t changed. Entire boat crews often dress in theme–some dancing, some singing. Those watching from the shore applaud and wave back.
“We enjoy the entire event as boaters, getting out and being part of the attraction for people,” says Jason Kopp, who lives at the marina. “But we also get to enjoy being able to go up at the Wharf afterwards and enjoy what’s happening up there.”
Kopp moved onto a boat at what is now called the Wharf Marina in November 2007. In his 15 years in the neighborhood, Kopp estimates he has taken part in seven or eight holiday parades, piloting his own boat five or six times.
“Since it’s a small neighborhood, you know, there’s [about] 100 of us that live here at the marina, we all know each other pretty well,” Kopp says. “One year, one person will have this amazing idea for how they want to decorate their boat, and we’ll just help them out and be crew on their boat. And another year, we’ll take our boat out. So this is a year that I’m going out.”
Kopp recalls past themes that the neighborhood created: a gingerbread house, “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” the Nationals World Series trophy. One year, he recalls, the theme was a dip for Old Saint Nick. Says Kopp: “The bow on my boat, the space is very large. So we made it look like a giant pool and then had people get different types of decorations that looked like they were at Santa’s pool party.”
This year’s build will feature a deeper dive into the theme of holiday mermaids, mermen, and mer-people. Kopp says some are in it to win the various prizes, but he’s just in it for the collaboration.
Once the parade ends, Wharf Marina residents will often leave their light displays up throughout the holiday season.
“It’s a good thing–supporting the events, going down to the waterfront to enjoy not only the boats, but also the fireworks and just the feeling of well-being, Barbara Ehrlich says, “and the nice holiday spirit that is very evident on a cold winter’s night.”