A little dinghy dreams big in Newport Harbor

Skipper Peter Barbour strings lights on his boat in preparation for the Newport Beach Christmas boat parade.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

For five days every December, a humble dinghy rules Newport Harbor.

Little D25, all 11 feet of it, is a crowd favorite of the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, thanks to the wild imagination of skipper Peter Barbour. He spends the whole year scheming for this week; he refuses to estimate the dollars or hours he pours into the parade. You could say he’s a little obsessed.

“I go all out,” Barbour said. “My friends tell me, ‘Peter, you are out of control.’ ”

With about 6,125 colored lights, a speaker system and a half-ton of generators, cables and other equipment on board, it’s a miracle the thing doesn’t sink.

The five-day event, a beloved Newport Beach tradition that draws more than a million spectators, kicks off tonight at 6:30 p.m.

After four years of winning lesser awards -- Best Boat Under 30 Feet, Best Humor & Originality -- Barbour is gunning this time for the grand prize.

“The big boats always get the sweepstakes,” he said last weekend, nose buried in a circuit board along a 10-foot palm tree’s trunk. “I’m giving them one more chance.”

This year, as usual, his will probably be the smallest boat out there, puttering in the shadow of 65-foot behemoths.

He has kept late hours putting final touches on the illuminated tropical scene -- beach chair, palm, umbrella -- that will float atop his fiberglass skiff.

The Huntington Beach computer programmer pulled out all the stops this year, the parade’s centennial, designing an elaborate computerized light display choreographed to flash, twinkle and dim in time with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter.”

He’s come a long way from 2005’s Christmas fireside theme, complete with smoke machine, and from last year’s penguin surfing a wave. Next year’s idea? Top secret.

“I didn’t know it would mushroom quite as far as it has,” said Barbour, 44. “Each year I think in my mind: What can I get away with, what can I actually do?”

Once inspiration for D25’s theme begins percolating, Barbour scours flea markets and sales for lights and props: “I stew about it all year long; I don’t know if it’s healthy or not.” Then he presses a dozen or so friends into service to help him build his masterpiece aboard the vessel, which belongs to a friend.

He even makes D25 -- short for Dec. 25 -- business cards every year.

Barbour “certainly brings a great deal of enthusiasm to the event,” said Richard Luehrs, chief executive of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the parade. Luehrs declined to handicap Barbour’s sweepstakes prospects this year but added that “he’s quite a character.”

Newport Beach’s Christmas spirit hasn’t been dampened by the dire economic news, Luehrs said. Waterfront restaurants are booked solid and the 100 or so boats expected to parade around the harbor are a slight increase from last year.

Besides bringing in a few million dollars to local merchants, the well-televised 14-mile procession beams images of an elegant seaside resort town to snow-covered burgs nationwide.

“We’re talking about the California lifestyle, which has a summer-like mentality all year long,” said Gary Sherwin, chief executive of the Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau. “There’s a certain romance of being able to live in California, have your boat, live on the water -- a bit of an aspirational thing.”

One might call it that: A Balboa Island homeowner reportedly spends about $50,000 a year to hire a retired Disney Imagineer to design his holiday lighting display, Sherwin said. Things have grown slightly more complicated than the Japanese lantern-draped gondola that began the tradition 100 years ago.

“Given that this holiday season has not been a particularly happy one,” Sherwin said, “this is kind of a nice, free way to get into the spirit.”

The funny thing, Barbour says, is that he’s not that into Christmas. With some guilt, he’ll admit that he doesn’t even send out cards. He’s too busy working on the boat.

The parade runs tonight through Sunday, 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. with a fireworks display at Balboa Pier planned for 6:25 p.m. tonight. More information is available at (949) 729-4400 or www.christmasboat.