The Westport River Watershed Alliance’s third annual River Race last Saturday attracted a record crowd of entries including men, women, children, and one family pooch. For the record, the dog’s name was Toto…and yes, he knew he wasn’t in Kansas any more. The radiant sun, clear blue sky, and gentle zephyrs gliding in from the ocean made it a trademark Westport, MA kind of day.
By race time, 60 Family Fun race boats and 15 Challenge boats had registered, nearly doubling last year’s total. Paddlers hauled their boats from Plymouth, Lakeville, Fall River, New Bedford, Mattapoissett, and beyond to the River Run’s starting point at Hix Bridge Landing. And what a collection of boats it was. Meticulously crafted kevlar kayaks bobbed along side home-made plywood boats, owners of each equally proud of their aquatic choices. Several weekend water warriors took advantage of Osprey Sea Kayak’s offer and rented boats at half price for the occasion.
If padding once or twice a week all year round qualifies one as a die hard boater, Susan Fletcher of Plymouth is all that. “I paddle all winter in my 17 foot Surge Kayak,” she said. “It’s a fast touring boat. Last year I amazed myself and came in second in the Challenge race. It’s gonna be crazy with so many more high end boats here this year but more fun!” It’s safe to say Fletcher had fun. She was the first woman single kayak to cross the finish line this year.
The Family Race pitted brothers Ted Gibney of Fall River against his brother Tom of Lakeville. “If my brother wins, I want him drug tested, “ hooted Tom.
“Hey, all I want to do is finish without tipping over,” Ted retorted. Tom beat Ted by half a length. “You can’t beat youth,” said the younger brother. Their brother James, principal of Westport Middle School, begged off their attempt to join them in the fun.
Mark Welden, his ten year old daughter Janice, and twelve year old son Evan, entered their bright yellow home made canoe in the Family Fun race. Welden, of Assonet, labored about twenty hours to make “Buttercup,” the boat that he used in the annual Memorial Day Home Made Boat River Race in Mattapoissett. “This one’s got a quarter inch plywood frame, it’s the fourth one I’ve made. Today’s race is a tune up for next year’s Memorial Day race. If Janice likes it, she’ll paddle with me next year.” Lucky Evan went along for the ride. The Weldens came in second place. They will be a force to be reckoned with come next Memorial Day.
At 10:00 A.M Sam Ladd of Osprey Sea Kayaks organized the fifteen Challenge boats into starting formation just south of Hix Bridge and sent them off. They paddled south to Gunning Island and looped back past Hix Bridge and up to the Head of Westport, Some of them overtook boats tooling along in the Family Fun class.
In her 10:30 pre-race instructions to the large contingent of Family Fun boats, Sam Ladd said, “Remember, this is a fun race, if someone needs help along the way, stop and help them.” Although most of the flotilla probably agreed with this in principle, the thrill of competition the got the better of even those with the best intentions.
Case in point: Gerry Desrosiers of Westport. “I’ll spot you, don’t worry I’ll keep you company,” he was heard saying to two female friends in nearby kayaks. However, once he spotted two beefy paddlers in a canoe ahead of him, Desrosiers took off in hot pursuit. “Once I sniffed victory, every bend in the river was a challenge,” he said with a sly grin at the finish, which was where his two friends next saw him after the alpha dog mentality took hold of him.
By noontime, the narrow channel two hundred yards from Old County Road was like a beehive with the worker bees heading home for the day. Friends, family and race organizers welcomed the paddlers over the finish line that was brightly marked with colorful pennants.
Veteran racing kayaker Richard Rotnem, the first place finisher in the racing division of the Challenge race, praised the layout of the course. “It’s a good distance, especially at the beginning of the year,” said Rotnem, who has taken on challenges of 19, 9, and 6 miles.
“Since this is our third year organizing the event for the WRWA, it’s easier to organize and more fun,” observed co-chair Anne Fitzgerald. “We did more advertising, did it earlier and in more places. Today’s record numbers are an outcome of that.”
“We added kids activities that are fun and help kids learn about a the river. That keeps kids occupied while parents relax at the end of the race,” said co-chair Larry Hookey. Kids made osprey hats, played river animal twister and bean bag toss, and got faces, arms and legs painted.
“Sam and Carl Ladd of Osprey Sea Kayaks have been an integral part of this event.” Fitzgerald said. “They pick the date that will have the best tide and current conditions for the paddlers. They manage the pre race safety checks and get volunteers on the water spotters who monitor the race on the water.”
By day’s end, co-chairs Fitzgerald and Hookey, the Ladds, the Westport River Watershed Alliance, and over a hundred men, women, children, and of course that family pooch, all had a glorious day on the river.