Each year, they come bearing tiny, simple boats, mostly wooden ones. A discarded scrap of fir with a candle, a Kleenex box bearing a tiny flame, a crude miniature catamaran.
On New Year’s day at dusk, dozens of Roberts Creek residents gather at the mouth of the creek to launch their handmade craft from the shoreline. This community event for all ages has no official rules or competitive framework. Boat-makers coddle their creations, trying to light each one’s candle in the wind. Some launch theirs close to the bridge by the creek mouth, others walk farther along the shore towards the pier, shortening the distance to open ocean. Once afloat, if forceful waves push a vessel too close to shore, an owner might poke it back out with a stick or even stride into the numbing current to shove it away.
As these fragile, lighted craft bob out into the Pacific Ocean, clusters of bystanders gawk and point and exclaim or swear over the progress or watery demise of their boat. Most of the boats rarely make it more than about 20 metres before the candle flame disappears or a wave smashes their structure into oblivion. One year, in a stormy downpour, my humble boat barely hit the water before too-high waves hurled it to pieces against the rocks and logs along the shore. On board, my feeble little candle didn’t stand a chance.
Usually, each year, one or two hardy boats manage to conquer the waves and float out about 100 metres, their candles burning boldly in the darkness. The owners of such boats cluck and gloat good-naturedly, sharing the strategies and design tips of their success.
It’s general knowledge that no one spends more than a half-hour building their boat: less is more. The informal, verbal plan is not to use nails or toxic construction materials.
I’m not clear when this annual tradition began or why, but people participate even during horrendous weather conditions. Guess you can’t expect less from a community that makes a gumboot its sentimental symbol.
* * * * * *
From Greece’s brine-soaked Santa Claus to Thailand’s “fire boats”, illuminated ships are a round-the-world holiday ritual.
In Greece, residents decorate small Christmas boats, instead of trees, with lights and ornaments. Children sing Christmas carols holding lighted model boats. (The word “carol” comes from a Greek dance choraulein.)
Greeks even herald Saint Nicholas as their patron saint of sailors; with a seawater-drenched beard and clothes, he toils against waves to rescue sinking ships.
At Christmas, you can find a procession of lit-up leisure craft in Cornwall, England. In Zurich, Switzerland, locals float tiny, candle-bearing boats down the Limmat River.
Buddhists in northeastern Thailand have a “fire boat” celebration on the Mekong River. People adorn large, elaborate wooden boats with candles, lanterns, incense sticks, and religious offerings.
Throughout North America, many coastal and lakefront cities host illuminated boat events at Christmas. Locations in the U.S. range from Tampa Bay, Florida to Washington, DC to Newport Beach and San Diego, Calif. Even in the desert, light-decorated boats in Ocotillo, Arizona cruise through lakes on Christmas night.
In Canada, cities from Halifax to Vancouver host a Christmas boat parade, including Hamilton, Ont. and Ottawa.
(The last part of this post was originally published in the winter 2007/08 issue of Sunshine Coast Life magazine. It appeared as a sidebar (“Carol ships around the world”) to a feature I wrote on local carol ships.)