It didn’t matter if you piloted a dinghy, a speedboat, a slow-moving pontoon boat or a cabin cruiser, the only thing that mattered was that you had fun. And that they did.
For more than 30 years, the Crescent Yacht Club in Bradford hosted its annual boat parade on the Merrimack River. It was the last hurrah of the summer for boaters, and a chance to end a season on the water in a festive way. Dozens of boats took part in the event each year, slowly making their way upstream from Newburyport to Haverhill, where their crews stepped onto land for a celebration featuring music, a cookout, raffles and awards for the best decorated boats.
Then it all came to an end when, in 2009, the club cancelled the parade because of declining interest. The year before, just three boats took part in the parade, so club members decided to end it. But they never gave up on their dream of one day bringing it back.
Although it’s too late in the season to try to organize a parade this year, one member of the club said there’s a chance the parade could return next year.
“There’s a pretty good size group of us who would like to bring it back,” said Rick LeBlanc, a local building contractor who in the last years of the parade led it several times in his 28-foot cabin cruiser.
LeBlanc said at least 10 boaters he associates with at the club have expressed interest in reviving the parade, but one barrier this year is that about half of them have boats with mechanical problems.
“It wouldn’t take much to get it going again,” said LeBlanc, who added the discussions so far have been informal and that he is not a spokesman for the yacht club. “I think if you get 10 or more boats, it will be a real parade and people can have a lot of fun.”
LeBlanc said he was told the boat parade began years ago as a fall foliage cruise.
“I was told that at one time you could walk across from boat to boat,” he said.
During the 10 years prior to the parade’s cancellation, the North End Boat Club in Newburyport partnered with the Crescent Yacht Club in organizing the event, which drew as many as 75 boats, decorated to reflect each year’s parade theme. They included the Mardi Gras, Reggae on the River, and Pirates.
From Newburyport the boats motored the 15 or so miles upriver to Haverhill. Boaters and landlubbers got together to enjoy a cookout and music at the Crescent Yacht Club on the Bradford side of the river.
Then the North End Boat Club lost interest. Bob Jusko, commodore of the club, said at the time it might have to do with the parade ending up at the Crescent Yacht Club, which did an ample bar business during an afternoon of socializing. The Crescent Yacht Club continued to organize the event until it ended three years ago.
“Most people, I think, would like to see it come back,” Jusko said last week. “What we need to do is get some of the other marinas involved and get some boats to participate.”
The same year the Yacht Club cancelled the boat parade, it began hosting powerboat races in partnership with the South Shore Outboard Association. The races, sanctioned by the American Power Boat Association, drew racers from across the country and Canada and also drew big crowds to the river. The event was also a boost to the city’s economy.
The club expected to host this year’s fourth annual “River Run” powerboat races, but this summer that event was cancelled, Jusko said.
A number of factors lead up to the cancellation, Jusko said. “When the city installed a new playground (near the yacht club), it took away the staging area for the event. I don’t want to say we’re calling it off for good, but it isn’t looking very good.”
LeBlanc said he never believed the boat parade was doomed forever.
“Maybe what we have to do is go to the different marinas and yacht clubs down the river and talk it up,” he suggested. “There’s one group of boaters out of Newburyport who have dinghies and bigger boats as well. They have what they call their ‘dingy invasion’ each year where they come up to Haverhill.”
Jusko said 60 or more motorized rubber “dinghies” participated in the event this summer. He wonders if the “dinghy invasion” can be transformed into a boat parade with decorations and costumes.
“It’s always been a little thing, but it escalated into a lot of dinghies coming up the river,” Jusko said.
“It’s kind of neat to see them coming up the river and to the yacht club, where they had games and awards for all ages,” LeBlanc said.
Vincent Ouellette, director of recreation for the city, said many spectators were drawn to the annual boat parade to see how the boats were decorated and what kinds of costumes boaters wore.
“Anytime you have festivals, boat parades ... things like the Rotary Club’s Rubber Duck Regatta, it brings the community together,” Ouellette said. “These things add to the character of the city.”
LeBlanc said he wonders if boat owners who docked at Kazmiera Marina in Haverhill and participated in boat parades in the past might want to be part of a new parade.
“A few of them came up to the Crescent (Yacht Club), but did not participate in the whole parade,” LeBlanc said. “But if we were going down river, they might be more apt to join in and follow us down to Newburyport.
“Maybe we can get back in touch with the North End club (North End Boat Club in Newburyport) to see if we can put something together, such as having the parade there one year then in Haverhill the next year,” he said. “Let’s give everybody an equal chance, which might generate some extra interest.”