Back in 1999, Bay Area Houston residents Roy and Leslie Olsen wanted to throw a Mardi Gras party. Rather than simply wearing some beads and eating King cake, the couple found a more creative way to celebrate. The Olsens got some of their boating friends together and held Bay Area Houston’s first Mardi Gras boat parade by the Kemah Boardwalk. They decorated their boats, played music, and tossed beads to onlookers while partying out on the water.
The following year, the Olsens got even more boaters to participate, and the whimsical boat parade continued to grow. One of the early participants was Dr. Maurine Howard, who won an award for her decorated boat in 2002. That same year, Maurine came on board as the Executive Director of Yachty Gras to help facilitate the burgeoning event, and make it something everyone in the area could enjoy and be a part of.
The parade has grown in popularity, with upwards of 10,000 people enjoying the nautical revelry from land each year, and is dubbed “America’s Largest Mardi Gras Boat Parade.”
Historically, the most boats ever entered in the parade was in 2009 when more than 100 boats participated in the year following Hurricane Ike. During an average year, about 75 boats enter the parade. Boats are judged on decorations, music, costumes, and overall enthusiasm. Boat awards include Best in Show, the Marina Award (going to the marina with the most participants), the Admiral Award, and several others that recognize volunteers and special service. Over the decades boaters have pulled out all the stops with wild decorations and costumes, and entrants have included everything from row boats to enormous yachts.
Yachty Gras Mermaid
Iconic to Yachty Gras are its colorful mermaid posters that showcase a new mermaid every year. These posters are painted annually by none other than Dr. Maurine Howard herself, and have become collector’s items for locals. Her first mermaid poster was called “Enchantment of the Sea.” Her 2021 poster is titled “Hope of the Sea,” and will be available for purchase online at yachtygras.com or at Niche jewelry store, located at 447 Hwy. 3, just north of Helen Hall Library. Funds raised by poster sales are put back into the nonprofit and donated to local charities.
Yachty Gras is an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, sponsored by many businesses and organizations throughout Bay Area Houston, including the City of League City. Over the years, Yachty Gras has supported local charities including Youth Educational Student Services, Kemah Police, Turning Point, Jennette Williams Foundation, Wounded Heroes of Texas, League City Animal Shelter, Seabrook Animal Shelter, Bay Area Animal Shelter, Sea Scouts, Hearing Aids for Children, Shriners Hospital for Children, and Wounded Warriors.
Yachty Gras 2021
This year, the League City Volunteer Fire Department’s new fire boat will lead the parade, with the mermaid, Hope of the Sea, on board. The Grand Marshal—pageant queen and Ms. Texas 2020, Susan Hefner— will follow behind the fire boat with her royal court, ushering in the parade. This event is family friendly, and parade goers can expect lots of music, beautifully decorated boats, and of course—lots of beads! Social distancing and masks are highly encouraged.
Date: Saturday, February 6, 2021
Start Time: 7 p.m. (arrive early for parking and the best vantage points)
Where to Watch: Kemah Boardwalk | 15 Kipp Ave., Kemah Cost: FREE
Register your Boat: yachtygras.com/register
For more information visit yachtygras.com or call 713-882-4040.
Safety on the Water
To ensure the safety of all involved, a mandatory Skipper’s meeting is held the morning of the parade, hosted by the Coast Guard and Chief Tracy Keele from Clear Lake Shores Police Department. At the meeting, boaters are briefed on parade protocol designed to keep participants safe. Boaters who don’t attend the meeting but enter the parade line are a danger to the safety of other boaters, and will be sent into Galveston Bay by law enforcement once they’ve made it through the line, and will remain there until the parade is over.