Light Bright: Carteret County’s Annual Flotilla

Each December, the waterways of Beaufort and Morehead City welcome a festive evening boat parade with decorated vessels of all stripes.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Dylan Ray

The first weekend of December, they descend — or rather, they glide: a host of vessels sporting their holiday best, traveling along the intracoastal waterway to the delight of landlubber spectators.
For about 30 years, this waterborne parade has been part of Carteret County’s Christmas tradition, first organized by the tourism board and a local yacht club and these days helmed by the Friends of the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. (There are similar events in Wrightsville Beach, Wilmington, Swansboro and Pleasure Island.)

Anywhere from 20 to 30 boats participate, led by the Coast Guard. They start at the Morehead City Waterfront, then travel through the State Port into Taylor’s Creek along the Beaufort Waterfront. There’s no fee to enter, and all the boats that participate are volunteers. The participants are a mix of individual owners, commercial boats, charter boats and tow boats.

Each vessel is used as an opportunity to showcase their owners’ enthusiasm and creativity. “There’s definitely a spirit of very friendly competition,” says Brent Creelman, director of operations for the Friends of the North Carolina Maritime Museum. “There’s some serious technical wizardry — people build all kinds of crazy structures — but on the other end of the spectrum, you’ll also see families in a skiff with a Christmas tree and Dad dressed as Santa Claus.”

Derek Graham helps his friends Kevin and Shannon Bellamy decorate their boat. 

One year, someone created a superstructure to hold up a lit-up Grinch, complete with motion and sound. Another participant likes to hang upside-down Christmas trees. Lighthouses and dolphins are popular motifs, but the shape of the boats themselves, outlined in lights, are delight enough.

Raleigh residents Kevin and Shannon Bellamy, who have a place in Atlantic Beach, have participated in the flotilla for a decade. “We always take at least one other couple with us and turn it into a whole weekend-long event,” says Kevin. “We don’t decorate before this; this is our first holiday thing,” says Shannon. “It’s usually a three-day process to get it ready.”

Their friend Derek Graham has helped out many times. “At home, my wife and I are more candles-in-the-window type people — this is my chance to unleash my inner Griswold,” Graham laughs.

Not that there’s much of a plan, says Shannon: “We just fly by the seat of our pants and make it up as we go along.” The couple uses 30 to 40 strands of string lights to decorate their boat. “We kind of get a pattern going, with some areas in all white and other areas with the multicolor lights,” says Kevin.

One year, Graham found some giant inflatable string lights at a yard sale. “I thought, These are so cool, but they were too big to use on a house,” he says. “So I bring them out every year.” This group has figured out a few things over the years, like that it’s easiest to attach all the lights with zip ties, and to make sure all the cords end in the right place to plug everything in (they learned that the hard way).

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, but it’s low-stress. “We had a big rain a couple of years ago, but just continued as usual,” says Shannon. The tow boats also come in handy. “Occasionally we have a breakdown and a boat has to be towed,” says Creelman, noting that it even happened to him once. ”But we always seem to make it work.”

The flotilla is part of a bigger day of festivities: Beaufort has their holiday parade that day and Morehead City does a chowder crawl. So by the time the flotilla kicks off, the bars and restaurants along the waterfront are packed, with thousands of folks there for the event. “People cheer and hoot and holler and yell Merry Christmas,” says Creelman.

“It’s always a great reception — the crowd is amazing,” says Graham. “You wave and they wave back, everyone is so gracious and they applaud everybody’s effort.”

After the flotilla’s over, the boats dock up to toast the holidays. The next day, the lights come off. “The undecorating is much faster — we just snip them off and roll them up,” says Shannon. The lights are packed up to travel home to Raleigh, ready for their second, onshore stage. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.