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Friday, June 21, 2024

First N.C. Flotilla ignited a spark

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Thirty-one years ago, Martha Lee sat with a group of around 20 others in a Wilmington restaurant called the Pepper Mill. Their mission was to inject some of the vibrant activity from Wrightsville Beach’s summer months into the dark, cold winter season. On that day, in that restaurant, the North Carolina Holiday Flotilla was born.

The idea originated when Lee was asked to serve as the Wrightsville Beach representative on the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. She reached out to the local businesses to find out how the chamber could best assist them.

“They told me, ‘We’re dying in the winter,’” she said during a Nov. 25 phone interview.

Lee realized a flotilla, like one she knew of in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., would be a great incentive to draw visitors to Wrightsville Beach during the winter.

“I thought, this is the perfect place to have a flotilla,” she said, “because we have this beautiful, wide Banks Channel, and the Coast Guard station, so we’ve got everything we need.”

The flotilla first had to undergo a period of trial and error. During its first year, it was held much closer to Christmas, and poor weather conditions allowed only three boats to display their lights.

The next year, the committee moved the flotilla to the weekend after Thanksgiving, when it could serve the dual purpose of kicking off the Christmas season and helping people unwind after a holiday of traveling and cooking.

The fireworks show following the boat parade was also memorable both for its grandeur and for a few mishaps. Zambelli Fireworks, one of the largest fireworks companies in the world, put on the show. George “Boom Boom” Zambelli, as everyone called him, brought two trucks of fireworks to Wrightsville Beach.

“I said, ‘I wonder why they use two trucks?’” Lee said. “And he said, ‘It’s because if one blows up, we still have a show.’”

Those who remember the flotilla in its early years said Zambelli attended the flotilla in person simply because he enjoyed Wrightsville Beach so much. And because the Wrightsville Beach community made him feel like family, he gave them a good deal on pyrotechnics, or as former flotilla committee chair Jim Freeman put it, “More bang for our buck.”

Another former flotilla committee member, Hank Miller, said there were fewer guidelines at the time regulating the fireworks show, leading to several incidents that committee members look back on humorously.

Lee described riding on a barge transporting the fireworks to the launching site on a nearby island. One of her fellow committee members went to sit near the enormous pile of pyrotechnics.

“We turned around and looked in the back, and he’s smoking a cigarette on top of all that stuff!” she said. “We thought everything was going to go up in flames.”

Although the fireworks show and Festival in the Park are long-standing components of the flotilla weekend, the main event has always been the boat parade and the captains who lavishly adorn their vessels year after year. Spectators always looked forward to seeing what former Seapath Yacht Club dock master George Bond would unveil after months of decorating his boat in the secrecy of his garage.

The year Hurricane Fran devastated the coast, Bond decorated his boat as the Energizer Bunny, which Freeman said was a metaphor for the flotilla committee, who kept going year after year, regardless of obstacles.

For boat captain Bob Bleeker, the flotilla has been somewhat of a family reunion for the past 22 years. Every year, he and 30 or 40 members of his extended family stand on the bow of the boat and sing Christmas carols.

Three decades after that fateful meeting at the Pepper Mill, Lee said, the flotilla has become what it was intended to be: an iconic holiday tradition drawing more than 50,000 spectators from around the country.

“It’s wonderful to see that festive spirit in Wrightsville Beach at a time when it’s usually just dark,” Lee said. “That was the dream all along, if we could just get it off the ground.”

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