When Newport Beach's 81st annual Christmas boat parade begins its seven-night run Sunday, Bill Lusk will be leading the procession. Lusk, who serves as grand marshal, has not missed a parade in 15 years.
Becoming lead boat was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, says Lusk, who also serves as chairman of the event.
"Fifteen years ago, we got into the parade at the last minute," Lusk says. "We put a couple of strings of lights on and got behind the lead boat, the Balboa. We were going around the peninsula when the Balboa's lights went out. When you lose your lights, you just disappear from view, so we told them we'd keep following them if they would keep leading. So, we followed them around. And then their lights came back on. We had to get back so we (left the parade and) headed down the main channel. When we looked back around, the whole parade was following us."
The next night out, Lusk's 83-foot yacht, C'Est La Vie, fell in behind the Balboa again. Lusk says the Balboa began to take on water near Lido Isle and began to sink. "It was going down by the stern and barely made it to the dock where it was saved by the Harbor Patrol," Lusk recalls.
For the second night in a row, Lusk, a local real estate developer, found himself leading the two-hour parade through Newport Harbor.
The following year it became official: Bill Lusk was appointed grand marshal and parade chairman, jobs he has held every year since.
After this year's parade, Lusk will be turning over chairmanship duties to Bill Hamilton, owner of the Cannery Restaurant. But Lusk and C'Est La Vie will continue to lead the parade.
"Everybody looks for C'Est La Vie as the lead, so we will continue," he says, "but Bill will be chairman."
During Lusk's long reign, he has watched the boat parade become one of the city's biggest and most profitable attractions. "The parade has progressed to the level, but not the notoriety, of the Rose Parade," Lusk says. "We see 500,000 to 600,000 people here during parade week."
A volunteer effort, the boat parade is sponsored by the Newport Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce, which estimates that about half a million people view the event each year. A 1986 study showed that the parade has a multimillion-dollar effect on the community, chamber president Richard Luehrs says.
The parade attracts elaborately decorated boats from Dana Point to Huntington Harbour and includes vessels ranging from outrigger canoes and rowboats to large yachts.
One of Lusk's first duties as chairman was to draw up a harbor map showing the parade route and the approximate times the boats would pass prime waterfront-viewing locations.
"The first thing I was faced with that year was lots of letters asking, 'Where was the parade?' " Lusk recalls. "We found that people were expecting to go to any restaurant on the water and expecting the parade to come by. But Delaney's, for example, there is no way we can go by there. The channel is too narrow. So we published a route so people would know where the parade would pass. There must be hundreds of thousands of people who come down to see the parade, and we wanted them to know when we would be passing their location. Before that time, there was no discipline in following a route."
The parade's established route begins at 6:30 p.m. at Collins Island. Boats then circumnavigate the bay, ending about two hours later at the starting point. The parade passes more than a dozen bayfront restaurants and scores of private homes along the way.
This year for the first time, there will be marker buoys placed along the parade route, Lusk says. "If boats go around the buoys, then people even at the very end of the route will get to see the parade."
Luehrs advises parade watchers to "take the hassle out of driving and parking" by taking advantage of special grandstand seating set up by the Newport Harbor Jaycees at the Sea Scout Base, 1931 W. Coast Highway. Tickets are $6 for adults; $5 for seniors and $4 for children 12 and under. Ticket prices include free parking at Newport Dunes Aquatic Park. Free shuttle service will be provided. For more information, call the Jaycees parade hotline at (714) 644-6701.
In addition to congestion on the streets, the parade also creates traffic jams on the water as boats jockey for position. But it is the weather rather than traffic that can cause the biggest problem, according to Lusk. "Over the past 15 years, we've had to shut it down over a half-dozen times," he says. "The only time we shut it down is for fog or extreme wind. We keep going during rain. But during fog, you can't risk having 200 boats out there ready to bump into each other." The decision to cancel the parade is made jointly by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Sheriff's Department.