It’s never too early to start planning! Most of these tips for building your lighted boat display can apply easily to powerboats or sailboats, courtesy of Pete Chambliss, an avid lights parade enthusiast for 22 years.

A really good lights display takes careful planning. Photo by Shannon Hibberd at the Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade
A really good lights display takes careful planning. Photo by Shannon Hibberd at the Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade

Design Layout

  • Keep in mind that in most cases, the lights display is really only two dimensions.
  • Using a drawing or photo of your boat showing the starboard side (check with the parade organizer to confirm), scale your drawing to size.
  • Divide the display into frames to make construction and assembly easier.

The Team

  • Having a team member with electrical skills is very helpful, especially in figuring out the electrical distribution to the display.

Suspending/Supporting the Display

  • Display panels can be put on deck and sides supported by two-by-twos or EMT pipe.
  • Size does not matter, but we found that five-by-eight-foot frames are about the maximum size.

Frames and Chicken Wire

  • PVC works fairly well in short lengths, but can be flexible and brittle when it is cold.
  • Wooden two-by-twos and two-by-fours are easy to work with and strong.
  • EMT pipe, one half inch or larger, is easy to work with and light.
  • Stretch 1.5-inch chicken wire over the frames and secure with plastic wire ties. Join frames with wire ties and hose clamps.


  • Lay out your design with tape on the chicken wire and start putting on the lights.
  • Use paper covered wire ties (available at most grocery stores) to attach lights to the chicken wire.
  • Spacing is about one light per inch. A decorator’s trick is to step back from the display, turn on the lights, and squint to see if you have any thin spots.
  • Three strands of lights can be linked together (we have done four).
  • Outlet strips or extension cords with multiple outlet heads are very helpful.

Power Source

  • If you do not have access to a generator, reserve one as soon as possible at an equipment rental store. A 3000-watt (three KW) should suffice for most displays.

Power Distribution

  • All those extension cords have to lead somewhere, and that is the distribution box. This can be made up well before the display. You cannot have too many outlets. A 30-amp cord connects the generator to the power box. A master switch is very helpful to turn on all the lights at one time.
  • If you plan on having some sort of animation, a synchronizer can be purchased at Radio Shack or online.