A family tradition

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 5, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Four-year-old Reagan Nierman will be at the helm of the U.S.S. Reagan when she makes her maiden voyage down the Chuckatuck Creek this afternoon.

The newly constructed aircraft carrier – oops, raft – is the Nierman family’s vessel for this year’s annual Chuckatuck Creek Raft Race, a mainstay of Crittenden’s Independence Day festivities. The race begins at 3 p.m.

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Today, thousands of visitors will be jamming into the tiny northern Suffolk village to celebrate America’s birthday. The event, cosponsored by the Crittenden, Eclipse & Hobson Ruritan Club and Ebenezer United Methodist Church, kicks off with a parade at 11:30 a.m. A fireworks display will cap off the day at 9 p.m.

The Nierman family has participated in the raft race for at least two decades, said Chris Nierman, 38. These days, he and wife Kimberly and their three children – Aly, 15, Noah, 6 and Reagan, 4 – have inherited the job of building the family float.

There’s just one rule for the raft race – no motors.

Aside from that, anything goes. As long as they can stay afloat long enough during the 1/4-mile trip to the finish line, rafts can – and usually are – outlandishly bizarre.

Over the years, rafts have been constructed of tires, beer cans, even mattresses and recliners. The Nierman rafts have revolved around all sorts of themes: the Rockfish, the Titanic, and Noah’s Ark. Just one of those rafts – appropriately, the Titantic – sunk before the end of the race.

&uot;We don’t go to win,&uot; Nierman said. &uot;But we usually get the award for best design.&uot;

Last year’s raft, Noah’s Ark, was barely out of the water before Nierman had decided the theme for the 2004 float.

&uot;Last year’s raft was for Noah,&uot; Nierman said. &uot;So this year, I had to do one for Reagan. It will be her first time riding in the race.&uot;

It’s just coincidence that the U.S.S. Reagan is making its debut just days after the death of President Ronald Reagan. While Nierman’s daughter wasn’t exactly named after the country’s former leader, it made the name all the more attractive.

&uot;Reagan was my favorite president,&uot; said Nierman, adding that he plans to send a picture of the raft to Nancy Reagan. &uot;I had just turned 18 when he became president; he was the first one I ever voted for.

&uot;I feel like he did so much to change the state of our country. He made us feel good about being Americans.&uot;

Kimberly Nierman just likes unusual names.

&uot;So when we found out she was going to be a girl and I suggested Reagan, that was it,&uot; she said. &uot;She’s been Reagan since I was four months pregnant.&uot;

Nierman and his friend, Jay Gould, have been working on the U.S.S. Reagan for the past three or four days. Nierman and his kids spent Friday morning painting the raft a battleship grey and attaching model war planes.

There are still a few finishing touches before the raft hits the water – trimming the vessel with more than a dozen American flags and, of course, buying Reagan’s first captain’s hat.

&uot;This is my boat,&uot; said Reagan, peeking over her mother’s shoulder. &uot;I’m going to drive it.&uot;

Her first mate, Noah, will be in charge of waving flags.