Bridgewater Raft Race Attracts Enthusiastic Following
Camden Burton, 11, of Plymouth, Vt., shoots a water cannon from the "Birthday Girl" raft during the Bridgewater Raft Race in Bridgewater, Vt, on April 26, 2014. The 40th annual race benefited the Bridgewater FAST Squad and featured roughly thirty homemade rafts that set out on the 3-mile course. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Oliver Kiaja recovers after plunging into the Ottauquechee River when his raft disintegrated during the 40th annual Bridgewater Raft Race in Bridgewater, Vt, on April 26, 2014. Kiaja finished the 3-mile race on what remained of his craft. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Tiffany Hiltz gets carried from the Ottauquechee River while her teammate Melissa Manney follows on foot after finishing the 40th annual Bridgewater Raft Race in Bridgewater, Vt, on April 26, 2014. Hiltz and Melissa Manney were both treated for hypothermia after they finished the 3-mile race. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Bridgewater — Despite rainy conditions Saturday, many lined up along the Ottauquechee River — or floated down it — to celebrate the town of Bridgewater’s annual “rite of spring.”
The Bridgewater Raft Race celebrated its 40th anniversary, sending participants down a 3-mile course beginning at the home of eight-time race champion Rob Capossela in Bridgewater Corners and finishing at the Bridegwater Mill Mall. Only homemade, non-motorized rafts with no commercially manufactured hulls are allowed.
Since the 1980s, the event has been the primary fundraiser for Bridgewater’s Fast Squad emergency services.
Capossela won his sixth consecutive race, catching his breath after exerting himself to reach the finish line in 20 minutes, 40 seconds, 1:53 ahead of the second-place boat, manned by Bridgewater residents Steve Tarleton and Jim Earle.
Recent dry weather, combined with Saturday’s rain, made for a nearly perfect water level on the Ottauquechee, high enough to keep paddlers away from the rocky bottom, but not so high that the current became unmanageable or dangerous.
“It was great water today,” said the 47-year-old Capossela, whose narrow, kayak-style boat is made of blue foam board and duct tape. “I always paddle hard. The competition is the best part of the race.”
That, and all of the fun. Capossella’s riverside property becomes a veritable festival, a large campfire burning as participants share stories and prepare for the race. After the last boat finished at Bridgewater Mill Mall, participants were invited to an awards ceremony featuring live music and refreshments in nearby Plymouth, Vt.
Awards are issued for many categories, including best-dressed participant — many don themed attire — best raft name, youngest and oldest participants and farthest distance traveled to take part. A sportsmanship award is issued in honor of Bill Clingan, a previous starting-line landowner and supporter who died of cancer in 1986.
Audie Bellimer, of Bridgewater, earned three consecutive top-three finishes in the mid-1980s before he became the master of ceremonies in 1987. He used a megaphone to introduce the race Saturday, ushering a moment of silence for Clingan before an ear-crackling homemade cannon was fired off to mark the start of the race.
Bellimer takes pride in seeing so many gather for the event.
“In Bridgewater, it’s our rite to spring,” the Bridgewater Center resident said. “If this day didn’t happen, it’s as though spring would never start here. Look at all the people here. They look forward to it. Forty years is a long time, a lot of tradition. You’ve got 80-year-olds here who introduced their kids to it years ago and now their grandkids are here, too.”
According to Bellimer and information published on the event’s website, the race began in 1974 when “Hippy Jim” Cloninger and “Bear” William Massey, members of a riverside commune, decided to organize a raft race in honor what they called, “The Phantom Duck of the River.”
“It was a play on The Phantom Duck of the Desert from Mojave Desert folklore,” Bellimer said. “(Cloninger and Massey) lived in what was called the Porcupine Commune and they gave out painted rocks as prizes.”
The event struggled to find sufficient volunteers to promote and maintain it in the 1990s, ebbing with just seven rafts participating in 1999. New leadership helped it regain popularity, and today it draws about 30 boats annually. On Saturday, about 75 individuals occupied 29 boats despite the unfavorable weather.
The conditions didn’t stop Vermont Technical College students Summer Carvalho and Matt McEarchern from racing in a tropical-themed boat, wearing hulu skirts and flower necklaces while sipping from coconut-shaped cups. They were joined on the boat by friends Connor Kinzly, of Watertown, Conn., and West Brookfield, Vt., resident Brandon Huntington.
“We just made the boat last night out of PVC pipe. My stepdad helped,” said Carvalho, a Randolph resident who named the boat “Girls Gone Wild.”
“My aunt had the hulu skirts,” she added. “We didn’t have to buy anything.”
Other themed boats on hand included one painted to look like a bed, with paddlers wearing pajamas, and a “brewery boat” adorned with stickers from Bridgewater’s Long Trail Brewery and floating on plastic barrels to resemble kegs.
The event drew 23 sponsors this year, helping keep registration costs at only $5 per racer. It’s become an important annual fundraiser for Bridgewater’s Fast Squad, which receives much of its assistance through donations.
Race time keeper Beth Fish, a Fast Squad member, noted that it’s the group’s primary revenue source.
“It’s an all-volunteer organization, so something like this is really important for us,” Fish said. “It’s what we rely on for equipment.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.