Christmas on the Water: The Ocean Isle Beach Flotilla
Story By Denice Patterson
There is a chill in the November air along the Shallotte River at Windy Point. As the evening sky darkens, a crowd has gathered at the Inlet View Restaurant to watch the bustling activity in the adjacent water. A horn blasts, and all at once two dozen or so boats turn on their lights. The crowd cheers as the rippling surface reflects thousands of colorful lights. Jingle Bells plays, Sea Tow blows its horn, and the annual Ocean Isle Beach Flotilla begins.
This local holiday tradition began the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 2003 when Charles Griffin and his wife, Michelle, were hosting a group of friends for their traditional oyster roast. Conversations turned to Christmas, and someone lamented that the closest flotilla was in Little River. Another questioned, “Why don’t we start one here?”
Later that week, after Thanksgiving dinner, the Griffins hatched a plan. “We called everybody up and told them to show up at Sharky’s on Saturday afternoon and we didn’t tell them why,” says Charles. The Griffins and a few friends hauled out the Christmas lights, decorated five boats and set sail after dark.
“We blew air horns and people ran out of their houses to see what was going on,” Michelle says.
It took an hour for the boats to go from Concord Street to Sharky’s Restaurant and Marina, just a short distance down the Intracoastal Waterway, but word of mouth spread quickly. By the time the boats docked, there was a huge crowd of people waiting for them. A coastal holiday tradition was born.
For the past ten years, the flotilla has served as a fundraiser for a local charity and has grown so big that it takes a team of six people working part time from September to November to make it run smoothly. Gathering sponsors; designing, producing and selling T-shirts and other items; and organizing the judges, prizes raffles and post-flotilla party can be quite daunting.
Cheryl Wilson has been on board since the beginning. She is instrumental in the administration of the Christmas Flotilla. “We really love it,” she says. “We raise money for a wonderful cause, and it has become such an important tradition here on Ocean Isle — it’s the chance for us to celebrate the holidays with our out-of-town friends because everyone comes to their beach house for Thanksgiving now.”
In 2013 the flotilla raised $14,250 for charity.
“We donate to Brunswick Family Assistance because they serve a tremendous need in the community,” Michelle says.
“We could not put on this event without our sponsors,” Charles adds.
Scott and Michelle Coble of Margaritaville Footwear are generous with their donation of products for the raffles, including the piece-de-resistance for the blind auction — prime tickets to a Jimmy Buffett concert anywhere in the country.
Six-time flotilla winner Jeff Cox has nothing to hide. His entry is always animated, powered by two generators and one or two nephews. Last year, the owner of Shallotte Rent-All built an animated rocking horse on a 24-foot barge (a reconstructed pontoon boat). He starts on October 1 and builds it under his house.
If you stop by to peek at Cox’s entry, he might put you to work. The week before flotilla, his family comes into town and helps him mount it on the boat. “This year I think I’ll do a red stagecoach with six white horses,” he says. Knowing Cox’s past entries, those horses will certainly gallop. And the driver? “I think Santa will drive her this year,” he says.
Cox learned a lesson one year when he built a blue helicopter: Blue lights just do not work on the water. “You can’t really see it,” he says. “You need red and white lights.” Cox challenges everyone to enter. “Buy some lights, fix up your boat and enter,” he says. “It is so much fun and a great cause as well.”
To enter, folks simply need to send an email to email@example.com, contact one of the organizers or come the captain’s meeting. There are three prize categories: Under 21, Over 22 and Overall Best. The captain’s meeting is held on Friday afternoon at Sharky’s to go over safety rules.
“We take entrants right up to the afternoon of the event,” Michelle says, “For $25 dollars you can join the flotilla and have wonderful holiday experience with your family.”
The organizers say they really miss one of their original founders and flotilla enthusiasts, Ron Hinson.
“He sat in his boat at the entrance of the canal, fishing every day and talking to everyone,” Cox says. He recruited local beach home owners and the proprietors of the Raleigh Angus Barn, among many others, to be annual flotilla sponsors. Sadly, Hinson suffered a fatal heart attack in early November of last year, but through the sponsors he garnered, his legacy with the flotilla lives on.
Community support for the philanthropic event is amazing. In addition to corporate and local sponsors, including Sharky’s, Inlet View and Sea Tow, the flotilla greatly depends on the support of many others. Shallotte Parks and Recreation Department sets up bleachers for viewing in Sharky’s parking lot, and the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Department is integral for safety.
“The sheriff’s department makes a security call to ensure there is no barge traffic for ten miles either way,” Charles says. “They even deck out their boat with colorful lights.”
The Griffins and several other committee members float their own boats ahead, shining lights on any obstacles such as piers without lights or unmarked crab pots. It takes about three hours for the flotilla to go from start to finish, and all along the way there are thousands of folks lined up along the island and mainland.
The biggest crowd gathers near Sharky’s, where the judges sit on the dock awaiting the boats. The restaurant kitchen closes early, but the bars remain open to sell pizza, hot chocolate and all manner of “Holiday Cheer” to the crowd. Then local band Bailout hits the stage and the after – party begins.
“We are so happy to be a part of this great holiday tradition,” says Jim Pierce of Sharky’s. “Events like this are what make Ocean Isle Beach a great place to live.”
The Griffins have teamed with Sharky’s to add another charitable cause to the schedule. The weekend following the flotilla, Toys for Kids collection time arrives. Donated toys fill an entire room at the restaurant, and several trucks are required to deliver them to the Brunswick County Health Department. “Last year, we supplied enough toys for 90 families,” Michelle says. “The giving keeps on going and the holiday spirit at Ocean Isle Beach is a wonderful thing.” To donate to Toys for Kids, drop off your unwrapped toy to the box at Sharky’s from November 29 to December 6.
Want to go?
Ocean Isle Beach Flotilla
Saturday, November 29 starting at 5:30 pm
Route: Inlet View Bar and Grill down Intracoastal Waterway to Sharky’s Restaurant
(910) 612-7799; (910) 612-2793