Lights Parades, On Fire!

When thinking about lighted boat parades on the Chesapeake Bay, few people outside of Middle River have heard of the Middle River parade which is continuing to grow in popularity and participation each year. Last year 60 boats participated! Not even Baltimore or Annapolis can match that number.

One reason for its growing popularity and notoriety is the increasing use of pyrotechnics in the light displays. And who better to talk to about the planning behind the magic than the Hock family of Middle River, who have been competing in the parade (and winning) since its inaugural run in 2004.

I asked them a bit about their brainstorming and building process, for their elaborate displays each year, and brothers Doug and Nick Hock sort of chuckled and remarked how each year, though they may think of an idea a month ahead of time, the float does not actually get built until about four hours before the parade, or the day before if they’re on their game.

Their first float in 2004 was a Margaritaville theme, but they argue that they did not really get into their stride until the next year with “Chessie, the Chesapeake Bay Loch Ness Monster.”

Chessie was not only covered in 6000 CDs to make up her scales, she was also equipped with a flame thrower that shot a 20-foot fireball out of her mouth! They also built a tail on the engine so that it moved with the outboard and actually appeared to be swimming at water-level. Unfortunately it was quite windy that night, and at one point Chessie’s teeth caught on fire ... but that was only a minor mishap compared with her whole head falling off while trailering the boat to the marina.

The next year the Hocks did it even bigger and better with “Engine 355.” They built an elaborate fire engine on top of their 27-foot pontoon boat, complete with real sirens and lights borrowed from the local fire department, and a full cannon that shot water out 40-feet from the boat. But the excitement didn’t end that year. In 2007 they debuted “Rockin’ Christmas,” which featured a 30-foot fireplace, and son Doug dressed as an elf roasting marshmallows over the flames.

For father Jim, the 2008 “Have a Sweet Christmas” gingerbread house rivaled Chessie for his favorite display. Like every other year, the family pontoon boat was stripped of everything but the center console and the old mercury engine, but that year, an entire “house” was built with a full chimney and wraparound porch. Propane flames licked out of the chimney as snow drifted gently off the roof from a strategically placed snow machine. But despite its novelty, it was so hard to see to drive that he actually had to stand on the seat and steer with his foot as he peered out the gingerbread window. But don’t try this at home, kids; these guys are professionals.

And for all those doubting the safety of flames on a boat (which, hey, you might be right), Nick is a licensed pyro technician and runs a tight ship. When interviewing the family, he glibly joked “we haven’t lost a boat yet.”

So yes, boats spewing flames, at night, in a parade may seem dangerous, but it makes for an event like no other. These guys truly know what they’re doing. Even I was amazed, and Nick remarked how it’s simply “a Middle River thing.”

The parade would not have been possible without such dedicated people like the Hocks and the folks at Stansbury Yacht Basin and Baltimore Boating Center. Each year the parade is held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which this year falls on the 29th (for more info check out mrboatparade.com).

So for those of you Annapolis or Baltimore folks who are dying to see boats spew flames all over the Chesapeake, make sure to get up to Middle River. It’s only a quick 45-minute drive for most of you, and I think it’s time you finally see what you’ve been missing!

--by Kaylie Jasinski