As a kid, Jim DiMaggio hated sprucing up the house for the holidays.
“I dreaded it when my dad dragged out the decorations and I had to put the lights up,” he said.
Now DiMaggio, a boat owner from Severna Park, spends long hours stringing lights — 20,000 or more — on his craft for Christmas. He’s one of a number of local skippers who decorate their boats for seasonal parades, or to just glide around nearby rivers and creeks flashing holiday cheer after dark. DiMaggio, whose displays have won a number of awards at the annual Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade in Annapolis, does both.
“Every year I buy more lights and [the display] gets brighter,” says DiMaggio, 55, who works for Northrop Grumman in parts management. He has spent more than $3,000 illuminating his 60-foot custom steel trawler. For 12 years, he has dressed up his boats — he started with simple icicle lights — while raising the bar each holiday season. This year’s theme favors crabs, 16 of which, cut from plywood and strung with lights, appear to scuttle about the bow and sides of the boat. The crabs, some four feet tall, glow green and red and highlight an oft-blinding display.
“It is bright,” said DiMaggio, who has to turn off some lights when driving the boat because “they hinder my vision.”
His décor pays homage to “A Christmas Story,” the 1983 movie that featured a kitschy leg lamp, a plywood replica of which hangs from the back of his boat. There are Christmas trees, made from 4-foot wire tomato cages turned upside down and strung with lights; towering 12-foot blowups of Santa, Frosty the Snowman and the Grinch; and several reindeer, seemingly bound for takeoff.
DiMaggio spends 50 hours in preparation, starting in early November at the Harborview Marina in Baltimore, where he keeps his boat.
“When I light it all up, friends say they can see it from their homes in Canton, a couple of miles away,” he said. “I’ll call my parents, who live in Severna Park, and say, ‘I’m turning on my lights, can you see them?’ "
The decorations come down after New Year’s, but not until DiMaggio has circled the Inner Harbor at his leisure for a one-boat show that draws kudos from passersby. Other skippers sidle over to take pictures. And when DiMaggio ties up at a Fells Point dock to dine out, he’ll photograph people taking pictures of his boat.
“Some have tried to sneak on board, while we’re eating,” he said. “I throw them off.”
At year’s end, he strips the boat and packs all of the decorations away in plastic tubs in a public storage unit. The space is 6-by-10 feet; the lights take up three-fourths of that.
Though he’ll grouse about the effort it takes (”I’ve got to find another hobby,”), the project is a labor of love for DiMaggio. Don’t ask if he trims his own tree at home.
“My girlfriend does that,” he said. “I’ve had my fill.”
Shock and awe
Lighting up one’s boat for the holidays can be an electrifying experience; ask Scott Robinson. One year, as Robinson piloted his craft during a Christmas parade, it began to rain. Somewhere in the display of thousands of lights on board, a circuit blew out. Gripping the metal steering wheel, Robinson felt the electrical surge.
“The short sent a current right through my hand,” said Robinson, 60, of Annapolis. “It started tingling and then cramped up. I had trouble driving the boat. On straightaways, I just stood near the wheel; I only grabbed it when we had to turn. It was a trying day.”
So why risk a shock to dress his craft for the holidays?
“It adds to the Christmas spirit,” said Robinson. “You work hard at this but, in the end, it is satisfying.”
Since 1988, he has dressed his boat each December with as many as 10,000 lights for the Eastport parade. Using furring strips, wooden frames, chicken wire and rope lights, he has fashioned everything from a chugging train to Santa surfing a big blue wave. One year, he recreated the Griswold family’s station wagon, with a pine tree on top, from the film “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Blinking marquee lights on the car’s wheels gave it a mobile appearance.
“It all takes a bit of electrical engineering,” said Robinson, an investment adviser.
He leaves the decorations up for most of December, cruising the chilly waters near his home on Ridout Creek and nearby Whitehall Creek after sunset, drawing smiles from neighbors who anticipate his arrival. Greeting Santa sitting atop a blaring fire truck is one thing; seeing a sparkling, moving carousel on a boat, quite another.
The red-and-white merry-go-round, with eight reindeer, is Robinson’s current project to spiff up the Woohoo 2, his 30-foot Tiara powerboat. Work on it began before Halloween at his waterfront home in Amberley.
“It’s kind of a complicated theme, but it came out nice,” he said.
Robinson is at ease on the boat, his fourth through the years. As a young man, for two decades he lived aboard a 46-footer tied up at the Annapolis Landing Marina. This job is akin to decorating his home.
During parades, he said, “We wear elf hats, drink hot cider and rum, play [seasonal] music and scream ‘Merry Christmas!’” to people. For kids onshore, I’ll bet it’s something they’ll remember — and maybe get motivated, down the road, to do the same.”
A family tradition
Come December, most families gather to trim the tree. Jenny Burkett and her brood meet to trim their boat.
The Morning Sun
“It’s an annual tradition, an all-day thing,” Burkett said of the outing at the South Annapolis Yacht Center. There, she and her kin — three generations in all — assemble to bedeck the boat, a 40-foot Cruisers Yachts 400 Express. Picture 10 of them milling about, stringing tube lights around the perimeters of the plywood figures — the five-foot polar bears and the locomotive (the Polar Express) that Burkett carved with a jigsaw.
“We bring a big lunch spread, drink hot chocolate and sing carols,” the Stevensville resident said. “The kids think it’s cool. If it’s cold, our fingers get numb but you can’t wear gloves to attach lights with zip ties. It can be a little painful, but it’s fun.”
Twinkling icicle lights line the railings of the boat, atop which stands a 5-foot tree — a simple pole with cascading green lights attached.
The boat belongs to her father-in-law, Mike Blincoe, of Annapolis, a communications firm executive. He runs the ship, steering it each December through the Eastport parade with the family in tow, singing and dancing and waving to landlubbers.
“One year it snowed and it was hard for Mike to see, so the rest of us were his eyes on the water,” Burkett said.
One year, after the parade, Burkett, her husband Mike and their two young children tied up at the dock and spent the night on board. The lights stayed on until the kids fell asleep.
“It was magical,” she said. “We made memories.”