A flotilla of lighted boats brought glad tidings to the Petaluma Turning Basin on Saturday night in a holiday tradition that has endured more than three decades.

The Yuletide procession of decorated vessels was viewed by throngs along both banks of the Petaluma River.

They glided down the river to the expectant families and children waiting for a glimpse of Santa Claus aboard one of the boats.

"Hi Santa!" was the cry of many of the children, including Ava, 4, who was there with her parents Michael and Amy Truncale.

"There he is. I think there are some elves there too," her father affirmed on spotting the red-suited Father Christmas.

Michael Truncale, a photographer and web developer who has lived in Petaluma three years, said it's just one event that makes the community "a great family town."

The first lighted boat parade was in 1982, and the event has been carried on by the Petaluma Yacht Club with sponsorship from the Petaluma Visitors Center.

"It always draws a pretty good crowd," said Petaluma Harbormaster Barry Thorsson, who estimated attendance at perhaps 2,000 people Saturday.

They were lined along much of the route, at F and G streets, as well at Foundry Wharf.

The parade of 16 or 17 boats made its way from the Petaluma Marina to the downtown Turning Basin in a trip that took about 20 minutes.

Some of the lighted craft were festooned with toy reindeer, Christmas trees and even what appeared to be a disco ball shining over Santa.

Spectators stood three and four deep in some places craning for a look, some clutching cocoa or coffee to ward off the chill.

"It was a very small parade, over quickly. But it puts you in the Christmas mood," said Amy Schmuecker of Cotati. "It's very festive despite it being small."

Marie Valdez of Santa Rosa, there with her husband Joe and their daughter Kimber, 2, said the only problem was "the boats don't come close enough" and she wasn't quite sure where to find the best vantage point.

But "it's neat to see them all. I definitely enjoyed it," she said.

Robin Flournoy of Santa Rosa said she and her husband Eugene usually go to the lighted boat parade in Santa Cruz, but icy roads kept them away Saturday.

"This is a little closer to home," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.