By Ann Powers

For the TODAY

Newport’s Annual Lighted Boat Parade is a holiday celebration filled with maritime magic as watercraft of all shapes and sizes circle the historic Yaquina Bay, adorned with thousands of twinkling lights stretching across their masts and helms for a colorful glow.

But with this year’s launch on Saturday, Dec. 1, the charitable event takes on added meaning as it pays tribute to its co-founder, Marine Discovery Tours’ Capt. Don Mathews, who died on Nov. 9.

“We are continuing to do the parade in honor of his love of having fun,” said Fran Mathews, Don’s widow and business partner, “seeing sparkly lights on beautiful boats, getting together with neighbors and laughing with joy during our community fundraiser that donates 100 percent of all tickets and boat registrations to the [Pacific Communities Health District Foundation].

Sponsored by Marine Discovery Tours, the parade includes sea kayaks, sailboats, fishing boats, motorboats, 90-foot research vessels, NOAA Pacific Fleet watercraft and more. The procession is led by the US Coast Guard’s “Victory,” built in 1956 and the oldest Coast Guard vessel in active duty.

“We started this event 25 years ago as a way to unite our waterfront community as neighbors and welcome more visitors,” said Matthews. “Because there’s nothing more magical than sparkling lights reflecting on the water – whether it’s our Dungeness crab fleet ready to go, or a lovely sailboat gliding by.”

Matthews added that “rumor has it” Santa will be zipping around the bay, once again, on his surf board. She said he has also been known to mysteriously appear on the Misty, a 56-foot fishing boat owned by longtime local Capt. Robbie Waddell.

The parade can be viewed for free from Bay Boulevard, or the surrounding area, from 5 to 7 pm. Boats depart at sundown from various docks along the Bayfront, as well as the South Beach marina. Hundreds of onlookers line the docks, walkways, scenic shops and restaurants watching the boats illuminate the bay from the Coast Guard Station to the Embarcadero hotel and back – where judges await to access each boat’s festive efforts.

The vessels execute a 360-dgree turn (wind permitting) in front of the judges, who are local notables. The judges award a grand prize, along with first, second, third and honorable mention.

Guests can also participate in the parade, by purchasing a ride in a charter boat included in the lineup. Ticket proceeds benefit the Pacific Communities Health District Foundation’s fundraising efforts. This year’s focus is to help pay for equipment in the new Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital.

“We just have a really rich history of community support,” said Ursula Marinelli, PCHD foundation director. “It’s really important small towns like ours have a hospital because it adds to the quality of life.”

Tickets are limited and go fast. For pricing information, contact Marine Discovery Tours by calling 541-265-6200, or drop by Anchor Pier, 345 SW Bay Blvd., on Newport’s Bayfront.

In addition to supporting the local hospital, the Lighted Boat Parade also supports the local economy.

“We’re a marine-based economy and the Lighted Boat Parade reflects that culture as a seasonal event,” said Ken Bishop, Yaquina Bay Yacht Club vice commodore. “It also reminds us how important the ocean and our maritime history is. I’ve always enjoyed watching it and it’s an important event for the community.”

Dinner reservations before and after the light display are always holiday favorite among locals and visitors alike. Several restaurants offer pre-sold reservations. For details regarding the Lighted Boat Parade, pre-sold restaurant packages and lodging, contact the Newport Chamber of Commerce at 541-265-8801.

As a reminder, organizers say it’s important to bundle up the family before heading out to the Lighted Boat Parade, since there could be a wintery and damp nip in the coastal air.

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