Annual raft race draws a crowd

Published 6:42 pm Monday, July 5, 2010

It doesn’t take long to figure out the annual Chuckatuck Creek raft race is pretty informal.

The race starts and ends with a cannon shot. Teams paddle their homemade rafts down the creek with any method they can find, using oars, hands and anything else that will displace water. Dozens of real boats float in the water, directly in the path of the would-be raft racers.

Meanwhile, on the dock, nobody knows exactly how many rafts are entered, or how many years it has been going on. Even after the race is over, nobody knows who won.

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“It’s been a big deal,” said Sterling Grissom, who said he thinks the raft race has happened every July 4 since about 1975. Grissom sat on the dock, eating a chicken sandwich, like he has every year.

“One year, somebody had a raft made entirely out of beer cans,” Grissom said. “God knows how it floated. And they drank every one of the beers.”

After the race is over, the Eclipse Sardines team of Chris Nierman, Mike Page, Jay Gould and Chris Saunders had to be towed to the banks of the creek so they could bail out their “sardine can.” The team members have been racing together since they were in high school.

The sardine can was made of wood, complete with the top of the “can” rolled back, and painted silver. By the time the race was over, however, half of it was filled with water. A water pump installed in the raft was the only think that kept it from sinking completely, Nierman said.

If the S.S. Sardine had gone down, however, it wouldn’t have been the first time a boat in the race sank. This year’s Sardine crew was manning a replica of the Titanic, appropriately, when it foundered in the middle of the creek about a dozen years ago.

“She went down,” Page said. “She’s still out there, somewhere.”

The four-man crew has had a theme every year, from aircraft carriers to Noah’s Ark to pirate ships. They talked about doing a submarine next year, but might decide against it — for fear it will sink.