Jabba's sail barge coming to Huntington Beach

Jabba the Hutt, the bloated, slimy gangster of the"Star Wars"universe, both made and ran into plenty of trouble on the desert planet of Tatooine, his home base for crime. But he might have found Huntington Beach even more treacherous.

That's because, despite his hairy dealings within the criminal underworld, bounty hunters and Jedi Knights, he never had to deal with California Department of Transportation mandates.

His sail barge, the Khetanna, which he used for pleasure cruises and more sinister business, hovered off the ground and had no need for turn signals, headlights or compact width. And there wasn't much air traffic in the Dune Sea.

But those are precisely the issues Lenny Francoeur, senior director of the Octagon Global Events, a marketing company, is facing as he oversees the construction of a replica of the sail barge that was seen in "Return of the Jedi." The vehicle will roll by the Huntington Beach Pier on Sunday as part of a "Star Wars"-themed charity relay called the Course of the Force.

The relay, which will start Saturday in Santa Monica and end four days later in San Diego, will feature a series of runners — or walkers or joggers — who go a quarter-mile each and pass on a plastic lightsaber in the spirit of the Olympic torch. Leading the procession will be the sail barge, or at least its street-legal equivalent.

The barge — which was destroyed Luke Skywalker and company in the film after they escaped peril and killed Jabba — will be reduced from roughly 100 feet to 25 feet and outfitted with mirrors, tires and everything else needed to set it amid the other vehicles on Pacific Coast Highway.

"There's a lot more traffic in Southern California than there is on Tatooine, that's for sure," Francoeur said. "This is going to be traffic like the sail barge has never seen."

As the barge lumbers down the coast en route to the San Diego Comic-Con International, chased by runners dressed in "Star Wars" or other pop-culture attire, the event may look like a haven for fanboys and fangirls. But it has a much bigger cause attached.

Course of the Force, created by Octagon, Lucasfilm and the production company Nerdist Industries, will donate all its proceeds to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which fulfills wishes for children with life-threatening medical conditions. The registration fee to walk or run a quarter-mile is $500, and despite the hefty price, nearly all the slots have sold out.


'As much a fan as everyone'


That was the first thing Peter Levin, Nerdist's chief executive, felt many mornings over the past year — courtesy of his 6-year-old son, who often woke him up by gently bouncing a toy lightsaber off his head.

Levin's son hasn't actually seen any of the "Star Wars" movies yet, although he's watched cartoons based on them. That lightsaber, though, became one of his prized possessions. For his dad, after the umpteenth blow to the noggin, it became the inspiration for Course of the Force as well.

Actually, it was one of a few inspirations. Levin, whose company runs a YouTube channel, podcasts, live shows and more with pop-culture themes, has attended the Comic-Con every year for nearly two decades. In 1996, he carried the Olympic torch for a short distance toward Atlanta. Last fall, he watched a group of Make-A-Wish kids touring Skywalker Ranch, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas' home and workplace in Marin County.

Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Levin had an idea brewing for an event that would combine relay running, charity and the Comic-Con. That plastic wake-up call helped tie them all together.

"Oh, man," Levin said. "There's something about a lightsaber."

In the midst of brainstorming the event, the organizers decided they wanted a vehicle to make it more eye-catching on the road — and also to provide a workspace for Nerdist officials, who will film the procession and stream video online. The Khetanna proved to be the winner.

To help bring a galaxy far, far away to a highway close by, the Course team contacted Fiesta Parade Floats, an Irwindale-based company that builds floats for the Rose Parade each year. President Tim Estes, who founded the company in 1988, jumped at the opportunity.

For the last month, Estes had led his crew of 12 in building the barge from scratch, starting with the framework and interior and welding steel to approximate the design. He noted that it's not the most bizarre thing he's ever been called on to make: In the past, he's overseen floats with surfing and snowboarding dogs, plus one with a giant gift box that opened to release a man on a jetpack.

Still, getting to bring Jabba the Hutt's transport to life particularly excited him.

"Growing up, everybody saw 'Star Wars' at one time or another," he said. "I'm just as much a fan as everyone else."


Elvis Presley, Jedi Knight?

Despite the "Star Wars" theme, the organizers of Course of the Force don't require that participants dress up as one of Lucas' creations. Those who register have to clear their costumes in advance; even outfits that aren't sci-fi are acceptable.

"It can be everything from pop culture in general," said Adam Harris, marketing and communications director for Octagon. "We'd love to have someone out there in an Elvis costume. I think that would be neat to see."

According to Estes, although the sail barge can travel up to about 40 mph, it will probably roll at about one-tenth that speed during the course to allow the torch-bearers to keep up. Among those expected to cover a quarter-mile are several Make-A-Wish kids; Harris and his colleagues are also trying to enlist athletes and other celebrities.

In between days of the relay, the caravan, which includes the barge and two RVs, will stop for the night at hotels. Harris expects at least a few gawkers in every parking lot.

"I guess it would be the equivalent of the Batmobile parking outside a hotel," he said. "It's going to get some eyes."

The caravan is scheduled to stop at the Huntington Beach Pier at 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Starting at 4, the pier will host a five-hour, pop-culture festival, with food, vendors, people in "Star Wars" costumes and live music in the evening.

When the barge reaches San Diego, it will park outside the Comic-Con with a life-size foam Jabba on top, courtesy of Lucasfilm.

Once the Comic-Con ends, the barge will return to Fiesta Parade's storage facility, but in late August, it has another engagement: It will be towed across the country to Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, Fla. Next year, it may roll through Huntington again in Course of the Force, which the organizers hope to make an annual event.

So how much does a real-life Khetanna sail barge cost to build? Francoeur declined to state.

"We put it on galactic credit," he said. "Maybe you can use that."


Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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