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Wrightsville Beach
Saturday, March 2, 2024

Smallest boat wins grand prize

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Wrightsville Beach’s 32nd Annual North Carolina Holiday Flotilla Nov. 27–28 culminated Saturday night in a big win by the smallest boat and a marriage proposal.

Chris Jernigan described his brother Brent Jernigan’s 11.5-foot pontoon boat as “two surfboards with a motor.” But using PVC pipe, chicken wire and Christmas lights, the brothers transformed the tiny craft into a twinkling blue marlin, earning them Best of Show and $5,000.

In seven years participating, this was the first time Jernigan took home the top prize. Seven proved to be a winning number for the brothers this year; they were seventh in the line of 23 glittering boats cruising down the Intracoastal Waterway. But good fortune was not with them at the start of the parade when they switched on their lights and the marlin’s trademark bill remained dark.

As they quickly rechecked their cords and wires, they heard the Heide Trask Drawbridge rumbling open to let the boat parade through. Just in time, they realized one of their plugs was backwards, and the marlin’s bill lit up.

“We work well under pressure,” Brent Jernigan said, and he wasn’t referring just to that night.

He came up with the Merry Marlin theme during the car ride home from the 2014 flotilla but didn’t start building the decorations until a few days before this year’s event because he wanted his brother’s help. The boat parade is a combined holiday and birthday celebration for the brothers, since Brent’s birthday always falls on flotilla weekend.

Several days before the flotilla, Chris travelled to his brother’s home in Lake Waccamaw to help construct the concept Brent had imagined.

“He comes up with all these ideas,” Chris said, “and usually I say ‘We can’t do that, how are you going to do that?’”

The brothers didn’t know how successful their creation was until they flipped on the lights for the first time a few hours before the boat parade.

Chris Jernigan lent his voice to complete the Merry Marlin character, using an amplifier to serenade spectators with lyrics like “We wish you a marlin Christmas” and “Hang a shining lure upon the highest bough.” He stayed in character after the parade ended, steering the Marlin past the island’s waterfront seafood restaurants and urging dinner guests to “eat more chicken.”

While the five flotilla judges deemed the Merry Marlin their favorite, spectators voted by text message to award Ava and Scott Werstlein’s pet adoption boat the People’s Choice prize. Just as they did last year, the Werstleins plan to use their $1,500 winnings to give adoptable animals treatments like heartworm medicine and vaccines to prepare them for adoption.

Their boat decorations featured a dog to reflect their nonprofit RescueConnect’s beginnings as a hound rescue and a cat to represent their recent efforts to find homes for feral cat litters. The word “adopt” was spelled in lights underneath the dog and cat because, Ava Werstlein said, “more than anything we just want to encourage people to think about adopting instead of going to a breeder.”

While other captains strove to impress the judges or the crowd with their decorations, Capt. Michael Hamby’s efforts were meant for a single person. As his boat passed Seapath Tower, he flipped a switch and illuminated the words “Sharon will you marry me?”

Sharon Edelstein, who was watching from the Seapath docks with her family, had no idea of Hamby’s intention to propose. She said the moment she realized what the glowing message said, “I just lost it. I started crying.”

By the time Hamby’s boat passed in front of the judges at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort, it displayed a second message: “She said yes!”

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