Celebrate the holiday season by enjoying the Regatta of Lights from the water.
There I stood, on the deck of the Queen Anne's Revenge, waving at brightly-lit boats — one featuring a flock of pink flamingos, another a football game, and a number with Santa at the helm.
After years of experiencing St. Augustine's annual Regatta of Lights from the bayfront, I was now part of the show.
What is the Regatta of Lights?
On the second Saturday in December, local and visiting boaters and most of the tour boat fleet adorn their vessels with holiday lights and participate in St. Augustine's lighted boat parade. Hundreds of holiday revelers line the St. Augustine bayfront to watch the Regatta of Lights, while others opt to join the parade on the water.
This lighted boat parade takes place north of the Bridge of Lions, as the boats "parade" around a buoy-it route taking them through the north mooring field, close along the wall of the bayfront with a turn at the Bridge of Lions, and then back around again for at least one more loop.
Spectators may watch from the upper deck at the Castillo de San Marcos, where admission is waived for the evening, or from along the bayfront and the Bridge of Lions. Intrepid boaters and their passengers may enjoy the show from the water, where the lighted boats can be seen against the backdrop of St. Augustine's Nights of Lights. Tickets are available on most of the tour boats and many charter boats.
A Brief History of the Regatta of Lights
The Regatta of Lights was first organized in 1980 by a local business association. In 2004, the City of St. Augustine asked the St. Augustine Yacht Club to command the fleet, and they've organized the event since that time. Thirty-six boats participated in 2019, ranging in size from small powerboats to large passenger tour boats. Any captain may register their boat, decorate it, and join the fleet.
The Yacht Club's crew of volunteer judges scatter along the bayfront, ranking the vessels in three divisions: Under 25 feet, Over 25 feet, and Commercial; with three winners in each category: Most Colorful, Best Theme, and Best-in-Class. There is no fee for participating boats, though captains are asked to register in advance.
Beginning at 5:30 p.m., the vessels all gather off the north end of Anastasia Island — preferably with their holiday lights turned off — and slowly meander in irregular circles.
Each year, the pirate ship Black Raven leads the parade — perhaps because they have the biggest cannon. Shortly before 6:00 p.m., the Yacht Club hails the Black Raven on the marine radio, and the pirate ship turns toward shore with the rest of the boats falling into line. Ideally, at this point, all the boats are illuminated only by their legally required running lights.
At 6:00 p.m., the regiment on the top level of the Castillo fires three cannon rounds from shore. The crew of the Black Raven answers with one round, and all parade boats turn on their lights.
Ta-da! Or not.
In truth, most vessels have their holiday lights on as soon as they near the gathering spot. Some just because, and others to make sure everything works as it ought to do. While there is no big "reveal," the true impact of the lighted boats is best seen when they are closer to shore — or up close from the water.
Watching from the Water
In 2019, I had expected to watch the Regatta of Lights from the bayfront until my husband, "Captain Blackheart" of the Pirate Ship Queen Anne's Revenge, was asked to crew on the "bad" pirate ship, following behind the "good" pirates on the larger Black Raven.
About those pirate "ships" — On normal trips, the Black Raven has a crew of performers who engage in a sword and cannon fight when attacked by the Queen Anne's Revenge. The crew of the QAR fight the Raven's crew and their young recruits, with the winning side getting the treasure chest. (Spoiler: Queen Anne's Revenge always loses.)
Though I'm not a pirate, I asked permission to join my husband for the evening, fully aware that I'd have to dress and act the part. After all, the first rule of viewing the Regatta of Lights is to share the fun with friends and family, so if I had to pose for photos and say, "ARRGH!" then that's what I'd do.
The Black Raven is one of the commercial passenger vessels that enter the Regatta of Lights each year with ticketed passengers on board to join the parade. In 2019, the 80 passengers aboard the Black Raven mingled on deck under a giant light display that switched back and forth from Jolly Old St. Nick to the Jolly Roger. Santa with Hat and Beard - to Skull and bones - to Santa with Hat and Beard - to Skull and Bones - to… well, you get the idea.
The weather that night was a mariner's dream — a clear, bright night with a just-past-full moon and a lovely sunset. Passengers took in the views and watched for dolphins, captains eyed their "competition" and crews shouted "Merry Christmas!" or complimented others on their decorations.
Other Participating Passenger Vessels
The Schooner Freedom participates each year. In 2019, their theme was "Winter Wonderland," which combined the beauty of snow and a northern winter with the warmth of the islands. The crew wore sweaters and shorts or leggings topped with "grass" skirts, while Jimmy Buffet could be heard on the speakers, singing, "How'd you like to hang your stockings on a great, big coconut tree?"
Santa was aboard the M/V Victory II and guests could choose to sit on the upper deck under the stars, or inside on the lower deck with windows all around for easy viewing. The M/V Victory II is the most accessible boat for people with limited mobility or parents who want to keep a youngster in their stroller.
St. Augustine Boat Tours While they don't participate in the parade, they do offer passengers the opportunity for viewing the boats and the city from the water. St. Augustine Boat Tours will anchor just outside of the parade route. Guests are invited to bring a small cooler.
St. Augustine Sailing, a sailing school and charter company, decorates one or more boats every year and invites a small number of passengers to join each boat. Private charters are available.
Summer Breeze rents small powerboats to visitors and locals. In 2019 they had three boats in the parade, each decorated to a theme and all with a small group of paid passengers. These smaller sail and power boats are perfect for four to six family members and friends.
My Experience as a Pirate
I was not the only amateur pirate to dress appropriately. Some of the Black Raven's passengers had arrived in pirate garb, ready to raise pewter mugs, fend off attacks, or pose for photos with other pirates. This temporary crew also belted out Christmas carols each time the ship passed the bayfront. Full participation was attributed either to the guests' outstanding holiday spirit or to one pirate's promise to make any onboard Scrooge walk the plank. (Also, rum.)
Queen Anne's Revenge, followed closely behind the Black Raven with three professional pirates on board — "Captain Blackbeard," "Captain Blackheart," and "Grace St. Clair, Evil Pirate Queen." Along for the ride and to shout the occasional "ARRGH!" were two garbed guests, myself and Blackbeard's friend. (Evidently pirates do not reveal their real names. During the cruise, I was "Buccaneer Barb.")
While Blackbeard and Blackheart drove the vessel and manned the generator to keep the lights bright, we unpaid crew took photos and encouraged the people along the bayfront to return our pirate cry. The small generator prevented us from hearing the crowd, but after the parade, I learned that those on shore gleefully shouted back in an approved piratey manner.
From Flamingos to Proposals
Watching from the water allowed us to be up close and personal with the other boats.
One yacht club sailing member eschewed holiday lights of red and green and presented a festive sailboat with a Florida-appropriate pink flamingo theme.
Another sailboat had traditional holiday lights glowing above a large sign with the phrase, "GO ARMY!" The Regatta of Lights just happens to take place on the same day as the Army/Navy game, and this family decided to please all members — complete with a large screen on deck showing the game. From that boat, "Hoorah" was heard more than "Merry Christmas."
One sailboat was clearly the crowd favorite. Decorated in a traditional Christmasy manner, the boat had a suspicious, dark section on the cabin top. At first, the crowd simply saw another brightly-lit sailboat, but when the boat reached a particular point along the route — where a friend of the captain was standing with his girlfriend — that dark spot flashed "Will you marry me?" The Regatta of Lights is the girlfriend's favorite event, and it will now forever be part of their family because —to the joy and relief of all, she said, "Yes!"
There were boats that celebrated both the holidays and our love of the sea, including one boat with a giant green sea serpent, another with a beautiful sea turtle crafted with green and blue lights, and another with dolphins pulling Santa's sleigh.
Powerboats in the parade nearly monopolized the use of inflatable yard decorations, tied carefully to every cleat. One boat featured an inflatable Santa on the bow; another an inflatable Grinch; and yet another posed an inflatable Santa standing atop the cabin and steering his trusty 50 horsepower inflatable "team". The outlier in this group was the small boat featuring lights of red, white, and blue, a large American Flag, and a living Statue of Liberty.
Some of the larger boats, including the Queen Anne's Revenge, kept to the St. Augustine Nights of Lights theme of bedecking all structures in white lights. The Queen's skeleton crew, John Paul Bones, eschewed any holiday garb but seemed to enjoy the excitement.
While the St. Augustine's Regatta of Lights looks fantastic when one is standing ashore, it's absolutely breath-taking to view all of these decorated boats against the backdrop that is St. Augustine's Historic District's Nights of Lights.
After the Parade
Once the parade completes two or three loops, the boats return to their home dock. Passengers are free to roam about St. Augustine to enjoy the Nights of Lights, while the captains and crews of all vessels are invited to a party at the Yacht Club. There, ballots are tallied and awards are presented. In 2019, the small flotilla of the Black Raven and Queen Anne's Revenge won in their category for "Best in Class."
Whether you watch from onshore or onboard, if you wish to dine in St. Augustine after the regatta is over, we recommended you make reservations well in advance of the parade. And if you are on a boat during the parade, remember to allow for the time to return to the dock and disembark.
How To Enjoy the Regatta of Lights from the Water
Passenger Boats for Nights of Lights
Most of these boats are open to the cooler air off the water. We recommend that you dress appropriately.
Florida Water Tours— This open pontoon boat takes adults and children ages five and older. They have a cash bar and blankets for chilly nights.
Red Boat Tours — A pontoon tour boat allows passengers to BYOB. They board at Vilano.
St Augustine Boat Tours — This boat doesn't participate in the parade, but anchors so that guests can view the parade and the lights on shore. Guests are invited to bring a small cooler.
Scenic Cruise— Head out on the river on the M/V Victory II. This large tour boat has an open top-deck and an enclosed first deck. Santa will be on board, and this vessel is accessible for those with mobility concerns.
St. Augustine Sailing— Enjoy all the lights, plus complimentary hot chocolate and cookies aboard one of a number of different boats. Private charters are available.
The Schooner Freedom-- The crew will offer complimentary soda, water, beer, wine, and hot chocolate.
Aboard a Private Boat
Simply register your boat with the St. Augustine Yacht Club, and find a crew that will help you decorate the boat. Or, set out on an OPB (Other Person's Boat) by convincing your boating neighbor to take their boat and promising not only to help decorate the boat but to also help remove the decorations.
From Maine, Barbara landed in St. Augustine after 5 years at sea and changed her writing focus from boating and the Caribbean to all things St. Augustine.