MIDDLETOWN - Raft America maintains a leisurely pace as it drifts down the river in style during The Connecticut River Raft Race. This is a power-driven raft that monitors the racecourse. It cannot pass human powered entries unless it is performing official duties or providing assistance to a derelict entrie.

Floating for fun

By Matthew Higbee, Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN -- Ten minutes into the 29th Annual Connecticut River Raft Race, the Raft America was running neck and neck with the Red Dog Saloon’s craft when captain Ed Bruce showed off the kind of tactical brilliance you would expect from a 20-year veteran. To the delight of his six-member crew, the seasoned skipper pulled a U-turn and headed straight for the dock of the Harbor Park Restaurant. It was time for a bloody Mary. "We’ve finished last too many years in a row," Bruce said with pride as he climbed the gangplank to the bar. Several hundred yards down the river, the feverish crews paddling in the competitive classes were just specks in a steamy haze. Their rafts were sleek and built for speed, and everyone on board put oar to water. The cruisers followed plowing broader wakes. Though they supported larger crews, rowing appeared to be optional.

Glug-glugging along at a more leisurely pace in a parade of misrule, were the motorized floats of the sweeper class. Staggering their start, sweepers such as the Raft America are responsible for helping what Bruce called the "derelict entries," the less-than-seaworthy rafts needing a tow to the finish line. Bruce said he typically waited until the rafts disappeared around the bend before disembarking. It’s all part of a strategy for prolonging a festive race.

"Once we heard the Coast Guard over the radio say, ‘When Ed crosses the line the race is over,’" he said.

Bruce’s Raft America, with its Astroturf deck, had a restrained presence in comparison to the carnival of sweeper crafts. Often multi-tiered and packing over a dozen revelers on deck, a sweeper is expected to drift down the river in style.

This festive raft is known as the Red Dog Saloon and its always bursting with fun-loving raft racers at each year's raft race.

On Sunday, the Red Dog Saloon was in full regalia with the banner of its signature hound flapping in the breeze. Painted fireengine red and prepared for either rain or blistering sun with a long canopy, this floating bar is, according to Bruce, "the fastest picnic table on water."

A green dragon figurehead decorated the bow of the Fearless Fools’ craft. Led by a Viking skipper, the fools took turns making a racket with a blowing horn. Their noisemaking was outdone by the bagpipes onboard the Horrendous, a large raft with heavy artillery. The cannon on the Horrendous’ prow is used to start the race every year with a boom.

The crew of Vikings onboard the Fearless Fools raft have become major players in the raft race. The bowsprit of their raft is adorned with a ridiculous looking dragon head which is quite amusing.

Despite the spirited showing from these long-time participants, interest in the annual event has waned since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when 150 rafts crowded the river along a stretch between East Hampton and Haddam Meadows State Park. Begun in 1974 by a handful of friends who were racing for case of beer, the event had become a victim of its own success. After a party grew out of hand in 1993, the Department of Environmental Protection revoked the organizers’ permit for Haddam Meadows.

During a protracted disagreement with the state, the race committee broke into two factions that spawned two races. One was held in Portland, the other in Middletown. Bruce was part of the faction behind the Middletown race that starts under the Arragoni Bridge, the race ends 4 miles down river at Dart Island.

The Horrendous raft provides a little push to get the band's raft up onto the shallows of Dart Island so it can be used as a floating stage. The Sonics provide live music at the finish line each year for every one to enjoy and dance to.

Watching the floating parade meander by his docked Raft America, Bruce had mixed feelings about the race’s transformation since the "glory days."

"We had 5,000 spectators at the 19th race. There was a huge tent and rock bands, but that was too large. The committee had focused their attention on the party and the true meaning of the day was lost," he said.

Since the race has moved up river, however, Bruce has noticed fewer rafts that show imagination. He was also disappointed that entrees have dwindled from over one hundred to several dozen. To rectify that trend, Bruce said it might be time for the committee to revive the old course and approach the state for a Haddam Meadows permit.

"I would love to see it return to its heyday," he said. "Maybe it’s time to look for a sponsor."

Even without the hordes of years past, however, the Raft America crew was having plenty of fun.

Donna Bellamy of New Britain began riding with Bruce four years ago, when she caught a ride from the Harbor Park dock. She’s come back every year since.

"It’s a nice relaxing good time with good people. You won’t find better people. And you won’t find a better person than Ed," she said.

Copyright © 2003, The Middletown Press

MLA citation: Higbee, Matthew. "Floating For Fun." The Middletown Press 03 Aug. 2003, Print.

MLA in-text citation: (Higbee)