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Setting sail as old St. Nick is no breeze

Every year, Donna Printz says she is going to retire. But then every year, she’s back answering the phone for Santa and planning his day sailing along South Kitsap’s shoreline to greet anxious residents.

“This is my 13th year,” said Printz, secretary of both the Port Orchard Yacht Club, which hosts the lighted boat parade, and Santa himself, since she personally talks to most of the people who request a message from Mr. Claus.

“I talk to a lot of the same people every year and I really get to know them,” she said, explaining that one family has scheduled a greeting for their daughter since she was a one-year-old. “Now, she’s in the sixth grade.”

And it’s not just kids Printz will tell Santa to greet. People ask to have grandma, grandpa, and the dog recognized. There’s even one family that asks to have the names of their rabbits, Flopsy and Mopsy, called out.

Each request, whether it’s one name or 20, Printz carefully writes out on a note card, asking for pronunciations and spelling phonetically any names she thinks Santa might struggle with.

And then the real work begins. To make sure Santa delivers each message in the right spot, Printz and her helpers — usually her husband, Dave — plot the location of each name, whether it be a house, a dock, or even another boat.

Today, that task is made infinitely easier thanks to little things like computers and GPS navigation systems. But in the beginning, Santa didn’t have that fancy stuff.

“I’ll never forget that first year,” Printz recalled, explaining that to find each house before the boat trip, she sailed along the coast while another member of the club drove to the houses, flashing his headlights when he found the right spot.

“People will say, ‘It’s that big yellow house on the cliff, you can’t miss it,” she said. “But people don’t understand that we can’t see colors at night.”

Now, Printz’s husband types the addresses into a laptop set-up with a program that finds and marks them automatically. Once all the messages are located, they are numbered both on the maps and on the cards, which Printz keeps secured in a small binder.

“We do that now because one year we dropped them,” Printz said, explaining that luckily the cards were numbered and could be put back in order, but the Santa team had to scramble to do so.

For last weekend’s parade, everything went like clockwork compared to those earlier attempts. Even Mother Nature eventually cooperated.

At noon the wind was whipping big raindrops around the Sound, but by the time the dozen or so boats reached Blake Island and began lining up, the weather had cleared so much that some sun was even peeking through the clouds.

“Two years ago, we had to cancel — I hate to do that,” said Printz, adding that if the weather is bad around 5 p.m. when the parade is supposed to start, the boaters will wait hours for it to improve rather than have to cancel Santa’s sail.

While waiting for the boats to leave, this year’s voice of Santa — the yacht club’s Fleet Captain Lee Hoffman — prepared by reading through the long list of names and making sure he could pronounce everything properly.

Next to him sat Printz, who pointed out which names belonged to dogs so Santa could bark a greeting, and which houses needed special attention.

“They couldn’t hear us last year, so we need to call their names at least twice,” she said.

With about a half hour to go, Hoffman went to sit in the top of the boat next to Rear Commodore Bob Taylor, who would track the boat’s progress along its route on the laptop. Perhaps more importantly, however, he was in charge of sending Christmas music through the boat’s PA system, then quickly muting it whenever Santa needed to call out a name.

In the meantime, the face of Santa, Gary Bess, was putting on his red-and-white suit and big, fluffy beard with the assistance of his wife, Commodore Nancy Bess.

“I normally do a lot of dancing out there, but this year I don’t know with my knee,” said Bess, explaining that this was his fourth year spending the night on the back of the boat, waving while the names are read, then boogieing when the music is on.

Despite his knee acting up, Bess did indeed boogie the night away, never complaining once about the cold or rain.

“This suit keeps me plenty warm,” he said.

Inside, Hoffman read carefully through the names, sipping on his third mug of hot, buttered rum — minus the rum, of course — to soothe his throat.

But he hardly limited himself to reading only the names on the cards, because between scheduled messages, Hoffman called out dozens of impromptu “Merry Christmas” greetings to houses that flashed their lights as the lighted boats passed by.

“That’s what makes it all worth it,” said Hoffman, after hearing a large cheer of thanks from one house.

“Many people plan their holiday parties around this parade,” Printz said. “And they appreciate it so much — that’s why we keep doing this.”

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