The winners of the “Best in Show” prize at the 34th annual North Carolina Holiday Flotilla in Wrightsville Beach set out to honor a friend and former competitor with a theme that harkened back to the historic times of the Lumina Pavilion.In addition to the representation of the classic marquee, the trolley and even the outdoor movie theater, the Wrightsville Beach themed boat also had the name “Paula” spelled out in lights, as long-time competitors Capt. Bob Bleecker and Alan Murray sought to represent a new award category named for Paula Sturdy, a regular flotilla winner who died unexpectedly in January.
But instead of winning the new award for the best Wrightsville Beach-themed boat, the tribute to Sturdy and the town she loved earned the two their first-ever Best in Show award after 25 years of competing.
“We’ve been chasing that one for a long time. It was very touching. It’s a memory of a lifetime,” Murray said. “She was out there competing with us.”
The crew of the J&B didn’t have to look far for inspiration, as Bleecker recounted holding his first-ever job at the historic Lumina Pavilion dance hall, where he worked to collect bottles at age 6. The J&B crew also represented nearly every part of the state, with participants hailing from Wilmington, Fayetteville, Morehead City, Charlotte, Raleigh, Boone, Durham, Winston-Salem, Mt. Olive and even Atlanta, Ga.
And as one Wrightsville Beach-themed boat took the top prize by reflecting history, the winner of the Paula Sturdy Award looked to the present, portraying the palm tree and parking meter on the tidal island that’s a popular stop for recreational boaters.
“We were going to just do a parking meter, but decided to add the palm tree and be a little less offensive,” said Capt. Jon Shellen, who became familiar with Sturdy because their boats were docked across from each other.
Several participants said the flotilla drew one of the biggest crowds in memory, both in terms of spectators and traffic in the boating channels.
“It was stressful,” Shellen said. “The amount of boats out there made it difficult to navigate.”
The crowds were likely encouraged by the weather, which was a balmy 57 degrees when the parade got underway.
“I’ve seen all kinds of weather and you could not have asked for better weather this year,” Bleecker said.
First-time entrants Eric and Barbara Wenderlich, along with Capt. Michael Lucas, won for Best Powerboat 31-feet and over for their “All American Christmas” theme.
Barbara Wenderlich said that the patriotic theme was partly inspired by the recent National Football League kneeling protests. The boat included the slogan “We reel, we do not kneel.”
“We stand for everything,” Wenderlich said. “With the current climate, we wanted to do something patriotic.”
Not only was it the Wenderlich’s first time entering the flotilla, it was there first ever time even attending the event. Wenderlich said the crowd support made it worth it.
“It was really exciting, people were hollering and screaming and singing to our Christmas music,” Wenderlich said.