The Little Willie rests patiently in the Connecticut River the day before the raft race. Many of the participants launch their rafts a day or two early then camp out at the Portland Marina for the weekend.

Little Willie Proves Up To Task In Raft Race

Paddles, Pedals, Props Churn Up The Waters Of The Connecticut River In Wacky Event

By JOSH KOVNER | Courant Staff Writer

PORTLAND - For wacky fun and a demonstration of grit and engineering prowess, the Connecticut River Raft Race is hard to beat. On a glorious, sultry Saturday, 20 craft - most homemade and powered by paddle or pedal - queued up for the 33rd running of the charity event. Organized by class, with crews of two or of as many as a dozen or more, they covered the 3.6 miles between Gildersleeve Island and the Riverside Marina in times ranging from 45 minutes to a couple of hours, gliding - or lumbering - on the outgoing tide.

The first homemade boat to cross was The Little Willie (successor to The Big Johnson,) conceived by Dave Malboeuf of Windsor when he was laid off from United Technologies and teaching machining at Asnuntuck Community College. The second boat, Drinkasaurus Becks, was built by Chris Miller of South Windsor 20 years ago. He's lost count of how many friends' basements, garages and backyards the rather singular-looking craft has been stowed in. And third to cross, in a time nine minutes faster than last year, was the sentimental favorite: The DeVinci, designed and built by 13 kids from the North End of Middletown. The first two boats finished first in their classes; The DeVinci was second in its class.

Then the beer flowed (for the adults,) against a backdrop of blues music and the sizzle of burgers and dogs, in the shade of the Riverside's campgrounds. Bob Niland of Portland, the race group's president, with 27 races under his belt, and Malboeuf hawked river raft T-shirts to raise bucks for youth charities in the Middletown area. The shirts are available by contacting group members through their website,

Each of the homemade rafts has a story behind it. The North End kids worked on and off for two years building The DeVinci, which is also the name of their youth club at the North End Action Team. Friendships formed and lessons were learned about patience and commitment as the matching Styrofoam hulls, sheathed in fiberglass, and the connecting series of two-by-sixes came together. Saturday was their third Connecticut River Raft Race and their best showing yet. "We just started to really try to motivate people," said Josh Arabas, 15, of Prospect Street in Middletown. "We had pretty good teamwork, even with some new kids. We were trying to catch The Little Willie. They beat us last year and that made us mad."

Cookie Quinones is president of the North End Action Team, the most active grass-roots group in Middletown, and mother of crew member Eric Quinones, 13. "You know, he's thrilled with this," she said. "He was there from the beginning and loved it. He even got three friends into it. He had worked on the dream house before [a small house that the NEAT kids built in a community garden on Ferry Street] and enjoyed having his hands on the boat. These kids have learned what they can do when their set their minds to something."

Lydia Brewster, the massage therapist from Haddam Neck who was one of the founders of NEAT in the mid 1990s, said the raft team wants to install a paddle wheel in the center of the boat for next year's race. "We need to go faster. We don't like being second," she said.

But beating Malboeuf and his crew might take a little more than a paddle wheel. The Little Willie has four pedal stations on deck. Each powers a prop, fore and aft. With a gleam in his eyes, his sweat-soaked shirt plastered to his back, Malboeuf lifted out one of the prop assemblies and showed it to a visitor. The propeller protruded from a contoured case designed to knife through the water. The case was made from wooden yardsticks, bought from Home Depot, and wrapped in fiberglass. "The prop design is patterned after a Navy destroyer," Malboeuf said, with barely restrained glee.

He got his students to help him build the props when he was teaching at the college. Crew members Chris Broderick of Springfield and Drew Papanek of Waterbury, and a handful of other friends helped Malboeuf put the boat together in a few months. This was the raft’s sixth race and its third win. The Little Willie's pedals turn with amazing ease, allowing the crew to conserve energy until the dash to the finish line.

"I like to read a newspaper on deck when another boat is trying to pass us. It demoralizes them," said Papanek. "Or drink from a frosty glass with an umbrella in it," adds Malboeuf, who was also assisted Saturday by Keiko Acri of Waterbury and her son, Kyle. The boy operated the sound board - a row of horns, sirens and whistles controlled by a kind of piano with clothes pins for keys.

The Little Willie crossed the finished line to whoops and snorts.

Copyright © 2007, The Hartford Courant

MLA citation: Kovner, Josh. "Little Willie Proves Up To Task In Raft Race." Hartford Courant 05 Aug. 2007: B1. Print.

MLA in-text citation: (Kovner B1)