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Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007 | The volunteer-run San Diego Bay Parade of Lights has been a holiday landmark for the region for 36 years. Families and companies dress up their boats — 85 last year, ranging from a kayak to a 149-foot private yacht — in lights according to a designated theme and parade through the bay from Shelter Island past the Star of India, ending up at the Coronado ferry landing.

The first boat in this year’s dual parades (last Sunday and this Sunday) is an entry by René Coons and her husband, Ken. The Coons met in their first class together in the MBA program at the University of San Diego. They’re both marketers — he in the medical field and she for her parents’ lithography business. With that creative background, the parade is something they start thinking about months before San Diego has any hint of winter weather.

And it’s contagious. At their house this week in La Mesa, Steven, their 4-year-old son, bounded to the door with an invitation to check out the blow-up Santa in the living room and the talking ornaments on the tree. Their daughter, Kaitlyn, is also a reportedly festive 6-year-old.

They’ve won the “best of yacht club” prize for several years running among the entries from the San Diego Yacht Club, where their boat is moored. René Coons sat down with us this week at their home to talk about the tradition and what it takes to make a winning boat.

I’ve never actually been to the parade — so, tell me a little bit about it and your experience.

My first time to see the boat parade was when my husband and I had one of our first dates. He invited me down there and we watched it from Seaport Village.

We have the family boat, which is the one that we decorate. And even though I’d been on it a million times with my grandfather, he had never partaken in [the parade]. And so we thought it was really great, and it was kind of our first love.

I used to row crew and I always loved the water growing up. And my husband loves the water, too. So, in the mid-’90s, my grandfather offered — he was getting older — if anyone wanted to learn the boat. Ken and I, at the time, didn’t have kids, and we expressed a love for it. And so, we took lessons and we did the classes, because we thought, “Gosh, it’s the family boat; you’ve got to do it the right way.”

We fell in love with it and were just taking care of it, and just co-owning it, and it’s just been really fun. And then we entered the parade in ’98.

Have you won prizes?

Every year we’ve entered, we’ve always gotten something. And it’s not always first place, of course. So I must say they do a great job making everyone feel welcome and appreciated, because it takes a lot of hours. And so they divide it up into categories, for sizes and sailboats and powerboats. … There’s individual, and then there’s corporate and charter. So basically, they spread the wealth because the whole idea is community participation.

You know, most of us are just people who are in the Christmas festive spirit. And that’s how we kind of hallmark the beginning of the Christmas season, come August. We remind ourselves what the theme is — we go on the website and we check, from August. And we start thinking about what we’re going to do. We’ve been doing it since ’98, and the dollars accumulate (laughs).

What’s it like decorating with the theme in mind?

Every year it’s a new theme, like one year it was a fun aloha-type theme, and so we put a grass skirt up all the way around the boat, and we got palm trees that light up, and flamingos. You know, you just let your imagination go. We’re both in marketing, my husband and I, so you kind of let your creativity go. We kind of went crazy this year; it’s a pirate theme.

Usually, it’s just my husband and I. But this year, my mother-in-law actually sewed tulle sails to make the boat look like a pirate ship and she sewed lights. And then she had a fabulous idea — the Jolly Roger is the character of the skull and the bones — to create one in the image of Santa. So she painted it — it’s phenomenal. She painted Santa’s face and did candy canes for the cross, and put a little (eye) patch on him and a little red scarf. It’s adorable.

So we have that, and we made a fake mast and fixed that above our anchor light. It’s just fun, you know — one thing kind of led to another. It’s probably the most hours we’ve ever put in it. Last night we were chatting and we think we put in 18 to 20-plus hours. And that doesn’t include all of the fun shopping you do (laughs).

So now, a few years ago you had the aloha theme. Do those light-up palm trees and things sort of become a part of your decorating in your house in future years?

To some degree, they do. Our attic is growing in space and being expanded. Sometimes my husband will pull out the old ones and plug them in for the kids for a joke and say, “Look what’s there!” And you do. You reuse, you get very creative and then some die and go by the wayside.

Do you have an example of a time that you’ve used something one year for one theme and then sort of re-vamped it for another one?

Well, we’ve always had this Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s just a deer with his arms bent in. And so we took it a car light — you know, the kind that you hang from the inside of your car hood? So we just took that, I bought a red light bulb, and we stuck it in his nose. And so Rudolph has kind of been the hallmark on our boat and he’s always in a different place every year. And so this year he’s on the top. …

And then, we have a Santa who’s eight feet tall. This year, I got a pirate shirt and I cut the back up the middle, and I strung lace on it, so that he could be a pirate Santa. And I made a felt patch for his eye. And then we always would have the word “Noel” on the side, and it was a little long in the tooth. So this year — the theme being pirates — I actually took rope lights and made it say “Yo” — you know, for pirates — and “Ho Ho Ho,” because that’s what Santa says. So we put that where, usually, “Noel” is. It’s kind of fun for them to see things from the shore.

So yeah, you take things, you reuse them, you move them around, and you try to get as bright and creative as you can. Some years are more challenging than others. I think this year seems, from what we could see, quite a bit more of a challenging year. It is hard to incorporate a happy spirit — some people are like “Put a sword in Santa’s hand!” and I’m like, “No!” (Laughs.) We wanted to get a Grinch to walk the plank but we couldn’t find a Grinch.

There’s a tremendous sailboat — I hope you’re going to go — and it’s phenomenal. They took, in complete lights, the Jolly Roger and made a skeleton face with a red handkerchief and made a cross and the whole things, all in lights, all around their mast. I mean, I can’t imagine. I don’t know if it’s a corporate boat, or what. It’s phenomenal, the creativity that the parade brings out in people.

And it’s fun, even if you just throw a few lights on your boat. We love it. We do it two nights, we never miss a night, and it’s, you know, one night with work friends and one night with family friends. For us, it’s our holiday party. With two young ones, it’s hard to do parties here (at home). But it’s our time, we have a sitter for the kids because they’re a little too young to be out that late and it’s dark and there’s so many electrical cords (laughs). Yeah, so for us, it just starts off our holiday season, and it’s fun and it’s relaxing.

So which year is this for you?

This is our eighth year. The only two years we’ve taken off are when Steven was born in December and Kaitlyn was born in January. I was either pregnant or had just had a baby. … So there’s no way I was getting out there. Otherwise, you know, we love it.

And the themes over the years?

Oh, last year was my favorite. Last year was something like the spirit of San Diego. So that was fun because we got to honor everyone in San Diego. And so I went around collecting flags — you know, SDPD loaned me their flag and I put lights around it on our boat. And we went to some fire departments. I just walked in, introduced myself, told them what I was doing, and asked if they had a flag they’d like to loan me. Then we went and bought a Coast Guard flag and a Marine flag and a Navy flag and strung them all the way around the skirt. And I put a Charger flag and a Padre flag — I just tried to think of everyone that represents San Diego that makes us such a unique community.

Someone created the Midway in lights on theirs, and they created the Del Coronado, and so, you look at their boat and it really represented each part of San Diego. The bridge was there, the Coronado bridge. And so that one was really neat. People really took off with that theme. …

So, for deciding the parade order, does somebody board your boat on the night and check it out?

No, what happens is, my husband’s always jockeyed for position. With young kids, we want to get home, plus, we don’t really want to be in the back, we want to be close. A couple of years ago, Bob Ehlers — he’s across from us at the yacht club — he said, “Hey, you guys always do such a good job. Do you think, impromptu, you’d want to be boat No. 1?” We said, “Gosh, that’s such an honor. Sure, we would love to.” …

And then this year, they actually e-mailed us ahead of time, to see if we were going to be in it, and would you be boat No. 1? … That’s kind of how we got to be known; it’s not because we’re special, it’s just because we have so much fun, we always play music; that’s always key to us, I always make people do silly things in front of the judges that are theme-represented. My husband always laughs at whatever it is. This year, he found Christmas pirate music. Thank God for Google, right?

And we put cannons on the front of our boat, and at one point, they say, “Fire the cannons!” and my husband hits the switch and little light bulbs go off and these painted spray buckets.

So are you and your husband lifelong San Diegans?

Well, my husband wasn’t born here but he came when he was two or three, so I consider him lifelong. And I was born and raised here — literally, you can see my parents’ house from here, about a mile from here (in the Mount Helix neighborhoods).

With both of you growing up inland, it’s an interesting thing that you have a boat.

It is an interesting thing — it’s a family thing. It’s my grandfather’s boat. It’s a 1970s Grand Banks. The name of it’s the Pilon — it means in Spanish like a little something sweet or something special. And so I grew up around it, and he’s always lived in Point Loma, right near the yacht club; he’s always walked to it and had a passion for it. But he’s 93 years old now and even though he’s 100 percent, it’s a lot of work for him and so we kind of took that over for him.

We’ve always loved the coast. … I always wanted to live inland just because we wanted a little bit more for our money and we wanted room for our kids to run around.

So, how many more years before you think you’ll take them along with you on the boat?

Actually, my husband was telling them next year. I thought, “Wow, next year …” but they’re both very good, mellow, responsible children. And they’ll wear their lifejackets.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

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