Sailors in this Mardi Gras boat parade party with a purpose
Known as the largest Mardi Gras boat parade in America, Yachty Gras has been a favorite event for boaters in the Clear Lake area for more than 20 years.
This year’s Yachty Gras parade happens at 7 p.m. Feb. 15, when a caravan of watercraft, from dinghies to sailboats to elaborate yachts, will sail along the Seabrook-Kemah channel, throwing beads from their decorated vessels to enthusiastic crowds.
The parade begins at Kemah’s Watergate Marina, goes past the Kemah Boardwalk, turns back and makes several loops.
You can expect to see elaborately costumed sailors in blinged-out boats that are strung with colorful lights, illuminating the night sky.
Yachty Gras Executive Director Maurine Howard is proud of the fact that the organization has come such a long way since its inception in 1999, she said.
“When I came on board in 2002, I volunteered to be the executive director, because I could see the potential of this organization,” she said.
Howard believed the nonprofit could benefit Galveston County and Clear Lake-area communities by becoming a nonprofit with the purpose of helping other nonprofits in the area, she said.
“So, that’s what we did,” she said.
Yachty Gras’ nonprofit status has allowed the organization to make donations to the Kemah Police Department; Bay Area Turning Point, a social service agency providing resources to people hurt by family violence and sexual assault; the Jeanette Williams Foundation’s summer camps for children with cancer; and an Elks Lodge program for children needing hearing aids; among other organizations.
“We have a really good supportive board and many great sponsors like the cities of Seabrook and Kemah, and organizations that give us grants,” Howard said. “Also, by having the yearly boat parade, we fill the hotels and bring tourism to the Bay Area.”
Each year, Yachty Gras boaters compete for trophies and follow a different theme. This year’s is “Valentine of the Sea.”
Competing boats are judged in such categories as best decorated, best music, best lighting, best creativity, best costume and best enthusiasm, Howard said.
“Trophies in those categories and other awards are given out the next day at the awards breakfast at the Aquarium Restaurant on the Kemah Boardwalk,” Howard said.
Mayors and city council members, state senators and representatives serve as judges.
The parade date changes every year, depending on the date of Galveston’s Mardi Gras, Howard said.
“We have the Yachty Gras parade the first Saturday of Galveston’s Mardi Gras so it won’t interfere with the second and final Saturday of Mardi Gras, so we encourage everyone to attend both,” she said.
After a kick-off party in January and a Skipper’s meeting the morning of the parade, Yachty Gras boaters get ready to show off the fruits of their labor.
There’s a $95 registration fee to enter a boat in the parade, she said. Participants must attend the Skipper’s meeting to go over safety rules and parade routes, sign forms and show proof of vessel insurance, Howard said.
“The Coast Guard and members of law enforcement conduct the meeting to make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them,” Howard said.
Howard praises her board members and volunteers who are invaluable to the organization, she said.
“No one gets a salary,” she said. “This is an all-volunteer organization, and the money we bring in supports Yachty Gras and local nonprofits. We put out fliers and mermaid posters to promote the parade every year, and I’ve painted 27 of the posters. The mermaid has become our image.”
Howard, who grew up an only child near Beaumont, has a desire to never stop learning, which has motivated her throughout her life, she said.
“I’ve owned several businesses, lived in Europe where I sailed around the Mediterranean, lived in Hawaii, was a flight attendant for Continental Airlines, and during that time got a PhD in Higher Education and Administration,” she said.
These days, her focus is on the Yachty Gras parade, which has become a passionate cause for her, she said.
“Yachty Gras allows me and all the volunteers to help other businesses,” Howard said. “It brings in people to the communities, and that process means we are able to give back to other nonprofits, while having fun in the meantime. That’s what life is all about.”