Christmas on Richardson Bay

By Nora Sawyer

There’s nothing quite like Christmas in Sausalito. Lights twinkle on hill and on houseboat, and though the bay winds blow cold, warmth and good cheer abound. Gingerbread houses spring up all over town, and boat owners deck their decks with lights, wreaths, and even the occasional tree. And since 1987, the Lighted Boat Parade has lit up the waterfront with lights, music, and even fireworks.

Like many Christmas traditions, Sausalito’s have adapted and changed through the ages. While the annual Lighted Boat Parade just celebrated its 30th anniversary, the tradition of decorated boats in Sausalito goes back even further. In December 1951, the Sausalito News’ Tide Rip column announced that “the first boat decorating contest ever to be held in Marin” would take place at the Sausalito Yacht Harbor. Sponsored by the Sausalito Cruising Club, the contest offered several prizes, including traditional items such as a perpetual cup trophy, and a few more offbeat offerings, including “a dozen heads of cabbage, a haircut, and even a free divorce, donated by an Oakland attorney.” The paper does not report on the contest (or the free divorce’s) outcome.

By 1953, the annual boat decorating contest boasted even bigger prizes, with winner Robert G. Hocckeler winning “a haul-out and bottom paint job at the San Rafael Marine Repair Shop” in addition to his trophy. The “second most effectively illuminated boat,” Lady K out of San Francisco, won “a haul-out by Madden & Lewis for her Christmas pulchritude.”

Even before visions of haul-outs and haircuts danced in their heads, many Sausalitans’ holiday cheer was expressed nautically. In December 1895, the Sausalito News reported that “many of the yachts, launches and arks in this bay are beautifully decorated with evergreen.” And on Christmas Day in 1947, the Tide Rip column recounted that “a true Yuletide spirit prevails this holiday season down at the yacht harbor. No matter what size the craft, there is always room for a Christmas tree. You can see them perched aloft, decorating mastheads . . . Power cruisers and larger boats have not only outside trees but gaily-illuminated indoor (or belowdecks) trees as well . . . you would undoubtedly find novel Christmas decorations on every floating home.”

On Christmas Eve 1954, the only Christmas illumination in evidence at the Sausalito Yacht Harbor was “the big star on the Stuart Roses' boat” where carol singers planned to gather that night “and sail up and down the waterfront, dispensing the traditional Christmas tunes—as only Sausalito can do it.” 1964 brought carolers from The Hanna Boys’ Center choir, hailing from “the western ‘boy’s town’ near Sonoma,” who visited five Bay Area communities on 36-foot Chris-Craft, singing their way from San Rafael to Belvedere and Tiburon and then Sausalito before continuing on to San Francisco.

Marinship celebrated Christmas in many ways, including this cover of the December 1942 issue of The Marin-er, a house organ published by the Employee Relations Div. of Marinship Corp.  Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Marinship celebrated Christmas in many ways, including this cover of the December 1942 issue of The Marin-er, a house organ published by the Employee Relations Div. of Marinship Corp.

Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

But Sausalito saw perhaps its most impressive nautical Christmas display in 1944, when “Old Saint Nick rode down into the waters of San Francisco Bay” on the bow of the SS Rincon Hill. Painted with a $100 war bond in his hand, Santa Claus was launched with the ship on December 17th. In an adjacent slipway, a 20-foot Christmas tree decorated the bow of a tanker, which “added to the Christmas spirit.”

The Marinship didn’t limit its Christmas spirit to ships. In 1943, “the world’s largest outdoor illuminated Victory Christmas tree” was installed in the heart of the Marinship. Forty-five feet tall, the tree was erected using one of the yard’s cranes, sprayed with simulated snow, and “brilliantly illuminated with flashing lights.” At night, “surmounted by a ‘V’ fashioned of green lights, and a great star at the top,” the tree was “easily visible” from the main highway that passed the Marinship. With the yard’s night lights and “the blue blaze of the hundreds of welders,” the tree presented “a Christmas scene of beauty unrivalled since the days of the Treasure Island exposition.”

While the Marinship’s wartime displays are hard to beat, Sausalito’s post-war waterfront still showed plenty of Christmas spirit. In 1950, the Tide Rip columnist (who wrote under the name C. Leggs) observed that, though a “raw north wind” kept many boaters “in the snug cabins of their boats, toasting their feet and friends in the friendly warmth of the Shipmate stove,” many spirited decorators still rose to the occasion. The houseboat Aquarius radiated “noel from stem to stern,” with wreaths, greens, and mistletoe. On the power cruiser Nancy K, Santa Claus peered out from behind the ship’s chimney, wishing passers-by a Merry Christmas. Still other boats boasted Christmas trees, lights, and candles.

Still, the columnist couldn’t help but dream of a day when “some local organization might sponsor a contest for boat decoration and Illumination such as the one at Marina Yacht Harbor in San Francisco.” Even if the prize were small, the “spirit behind such a contest and the resultant blaze of lights in the rigging would indeed add a great deal of sparkle to Sausalito over the holidays.” And as we enjoy the afterglow of our town’s 30th Lighted Boat Parade, it does seem that, with all the glories of Sausalito’s Christmas past, we are fortunate to live in its sparkling present.