Lions Club’s Christmas Ship visits island children

Children in the San Juan Islands know that Christmas reindeer will not appear, because Santa travels by boat ... like Dad and their neighbors. Doesn’t everyone know that?

This weekend, Santa will leave Bellingham, as he has for 60-plus years, to bring candy, toys and the magic of Christmas to remote San Juan islands and some of the Gulf Islands in Canada.

The idea was born in 1947 to businessman Roger Wahl and embraced by other well-known business owners. They consulted with Captain Don Wight Sr. for use of the 75-foot Eagles Lodge training ship for Sea Scouts. The group tied a lighted Christmas tree to the mast, gathered up presents, and the rest is history, complicated by winter weather and towering seas at times.

As Wight Sr. said, “Once we started, there was no quitting.” Children of the islands considered the Christmas Ship their own.

From 1955 to 1997, when the Lions Club took over, the Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce members) operated the ship with volunteers. The weather never was predictable in December. At times the Christmas Ship has had to tie up at an island dock and the crew stay at islanders’ homes. The Christmas tree has blown off the ship.

On the Jaycees first trip into Canadian waters, the ship Discovery was unable to make it into North Pender Island due to freezing temperatures and low visibility. When it then arrived at Waldron Island two hours late, the residents thought the ship had gone home because of the extreme weather. Bob Reeves of Waldron took Santa and most of the crew on a two-hour trip to homes, instead. When Wight managed to retreat to Friday Harbor, the weather was so bad that the crew took the state ferry to Anacortes and buses home to Bellingham.

On a typical visit, the Christmas Ship docks where Christmas decorations have lit up the night sky. Children and adults are dressed in their winter finest and often are singing carols. Santa goes ashore and sits in a chair, where children mob him to confess whether they have been good or bad and to tell him what they want for Christmas. Santa usually does not promise anything specific; he just says he will do what he can.

In earlier days more than today, people who chose to live on the remote islands eked out marginal livings. In 1980, Don Wight Jr., who took over from his father, said the crew had seen children without shoes in midwinter and poorly dressed for the cold, and that he had seen children with their jacket sleeves stapled shut because they had no mittens. The Christmas Ship was the main event of their holidays.

Wight told of an elderly woman so ill that she could not come to the dock yet sent a cake she had baked for the crew. The crew went to her house, instead, laden with small gifts.

Tripo Costello of Bellingham became a Christmas Ship legend as Santa Claus for 38 years The fisherman-carpenter loved the volunteer post and would wave and shout “HO, HO, HO!” before the ship was even close to the dock. He said the voyage was so rewarding, even when tears trickled down his cheeks when he learned a little boy sitting on his knee had been orphaned just days earlier by a car accident.

A typical crew in more recent years would be Santa, five Sea Scouts, and about 10 adults. A media person might come along, such as 1960s Dolly Connelly, or, later, KGMI’s Haines Fay or KOMO-TV’s Don McCune. In 1971, Charles Kuralt of CBS-TV chartered a boat and shadowed the Christmas Ship, then lost the images during photo processing.

When the original Discovery had to be replaced in 1980, none other than U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson used his influence to get a replacement. In 2011 the Discovery II was retired, and the Lions Club now leases the 96-foot Victoria 2.

Even so, with 50 people on board, the 2009 voyage of the Christmas Ship was so harrowing that one passenger said he would never go on any boat again. Battling a 60-knot wind, the ship rolled so badly that furnishings and supplies fell into the galley. Crew members chipped ice off the outside windows so the captain could see. Wight managed to get into Waldron Island. Residents again thought the ship had gone home, but the children were confident and told their parents that, of course, the Christmas Ship would come. Santa always came!