Bill and Alyssa Watling could be forming a new dynasty in the Rochester Memorial Day Boat Race after winning the event for the second straight year. On May 31, the Rochester couple set the co-ed course record with a time of 1 hour, 54 minutes and 22 seconds, eclipsing the 1:59.01 set in 2013 by another Rochester couple, Andrea and Sean Shaw.
The race dates back to 1934 and was only canceled from 1942 to 1946 by World War II.
“In marriage, we’re pretty much 50-50 making decisions, and in the boat race I actually let him make the decisions. I actually do everything he tells me to,” said Alyssa. “We’re a good team at home, too.”
Teamwork was key to the couple’s solving an experience gap the size of the Mattapoisett River itself, especially on a day like Monday when the currents were bullying the racers, capsizing their vessels and causing stress. Even on a calm day, turns can easily be missed, setting the blame game in motion for many competitors.
“A lot of teams went swimming this year, including us. At the end of the race, a lot of the teams were very wet,” said Alyssa, whose two-year learning curve has been accelerated by having Bill as mentor. She says her husband plots five turns ahead throughout the course. “He can tell you the next 10 if you ask.”
A tree that had apparently fallen overnight added a mandatory portage. “A lot of times you can sneak around them, but this one you had to get out (of the boat),” said Bill, officially known as mechanical engineer William Watling III.
Further complicating the task, the water in the New Bedford Road culvert was too high, resulting in another uncharted mandatory portage, along with the usual stops at Rounseville and Wolf Island Roads.
The racers plot the course and have a plan in place for a 20-second pit stop. They know which side of the boat they will get out, how they will drain the vessel of water, and carry it around the culvert or a downed tree to end the get back in the water as soon as possible.
Because of staggered start times to accommodate the boat traffic, estimating a lead in the race is complicated. Monday’s margin of victory was 2:21 over Eli MacGregor (Rochester) and Ian MacGregor (Mattapoisett). The Watlings won last year’s half-length race by 12 seconds. “We had a pretty good idea. We had friends following us down,” said Bill.
“You can’t predict anything. Until the race is completely done, you can’t predict what’s going to happen,” said Alyssa. “And if you practice the course a few weeks prior, the water level’s totally different.”
This year’s comeback to the full course was met with a relatively light turnout as 34 boats registered, a couple of them dropped out, and 27 finished the race. In 2020, 41 out of 44 entered boats completed the race.
The Watlings won last year’s half-course race, and this year’s victory is the first time a woman has ever been on the full course winning team.
“This is the fourth year we’ve used this boat, so the design has set three records,” said Bill, alluding to his course-record of 1:46:59 set in 2013 with former regular racing partner Dan Lawrence. Together, Watling and Lawrence won six out of seven years.
Lawrence teamed up this year with Andy Weigel, taking third place overall in 1:57:22, and were one of three teams to complete the course in under two hours (see results).
The event has been a nice distraction for Alyssa, who works in the medical field, which has obviously been extra stressed the past 15 months by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Usually I’m the one yelling at the boats,” she said, alluding to last year’s change of scenery as in being a competitor rather than a spectator. “Every family at every stop is yelling for whatever boat they see, it’s super fun.”
Alyssa also coaches the Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School girls volleyball team and believes the busiest of people need such outlets to move the body and do something different to manage stress. “If you want to go out there and give it your all … go for it, see what happens,” she said, encouraging anyone who is giving the race future consideration.
The Memorial Day Boat Race does not charge an entry fee, but the Rochester Fire Department, which sponsors the race, holds a ham-and-bean supper to defray costs. Starting in April, volunteers help clean up the Mattapoisett River to make sure the river is passable so herring can migrate on their annual run.
As a member of the race committee, Bill has participated regularly on weekends as up to 10 men in four to five canoes clean up one section of the river at a time. The effort took 110 trees a few years ago.
“The main thing is having fun,” he said.
Henri and Jonathan Roy of Rochester won the Parent/Child Division in 2:16:24, and Chelsea Allen (Spencer) and Megan Smith (New Bedford) won the Women’s Division in 2:21:47.
Rochester Memorial Day Boat Race
By Mick Colageo