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Kevin Johnson/Sentinel A boat decorated in colorful Christmas lights makes its way across the Santa Cruz Harbor on Saturday night during the annual Lighted Boat Parade; the yearly event, hosted by the Santa Cruz Yacht Club and Port District, featured dozens of brightly lit boats.

It's one of our best kept secrets: a free, fun, come as you are sort of night. It's the Santa Cruz Lighted Boat Parade, which will launch at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Santa Cruz Harbor.

Located on the coast between Seabright and Seventh avenues, the harbor hosts more than 800 boats of many shapes and sizes. It was built in 1964 at Woods Lagoon, which had been paired with Schwan Lake to its east to be known as the Twin Lakes. Today, the harbor is a key economic center which is still recovering from the massive damage to its docks and public facilities suffered in the March 11, 2011 tsunami.

This year's parade theme is "Twas the Lights Before Christmas." Make sure you dress warmly and get there early to find a good spot. It's really a beautiful way to spend part of a night watching boats draped with pearls of light glide along the harbor channel, leaving ripples in otherwise still water.

The event is organized by the Santa Cruz Yacht Club and the Santa Cruz Port District, which operates the harbor. For the second year in a row, the yacht club is sponsoring live commentary by Tom Dexel and Dee Schuyler for spectators in the harbor, which KSCO radio will simulcast at 1080 on the AM dial. The Crows Nest restaurant will again sponsor the judges and Aldo's restaurant will support the commentary. Other sponsors include the Kayak Connection, the SUP Shack, Stagnaro's Whale Watching, and Rainbeau Pictures.


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Those who decorate their boats and enter the parade get a chance at prizes, recognition and bragging rights. Participating boats have traditionally been judged in four categories: power boats fewer than 27 feet long, power boats 27 feet long and longer, all sailboats and people-powered craft, including kayaks, rowboats and inflatable vessels, and stationary vessels. There will also be awards for best to theme, and best music.

The first parade was held in 1986. Only five boats participated but those who remember that day insist that they had a great time. By 1996, that number had climbed to 45. This year, 30 boats are expected to participate and given the size of the Santa Cruz Harbor and its main channel which is just about right.

Similar holiday parades are held in the Oakland-Alameda Estuary, Newport Beach, Monterey, Ventura and other west coast ports. I've seen the Newport Harbor's lighted boat parade which is 104 years old and hosts more than 100 boats for a five-night period. Other parades are also larger but based on my own experience, ours is the most spirited.

If you plan to go to the harbor, areas near the Crow's Nest, Café El Palomar and Johnny's Harborside restaurants on the east side of the harbor are popular for viewing, as is the area near Aldo's on it's west side. If you plan to have dinner and drinks while viewing the action, space is limited and you should make your plans soon.

Because parking will be tight, you may want to carpool or if you live nearby, walk or ride your bike. Parade watchers can bring nonperishable food items for the Second Harvest Food Bank's food drive. Collection barrels will be at the harbormaster's office at 135 Fifth Ave. and at various other locations.

So head to the harbor, bundle up and enjoy. There will be lights everywhere, and songs to fill the air.

Dan Haifley is executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey. He can be reached at dhaifley@oneillseaodyssey.org.

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For information: www.scyc.org

If you wish to enter your boat, go to http://tinyurl.com/cnso859 for an entry form.