Race Renews River Fever Another Year

It has been said that runners run because the act of running is intoxicating, addicting … something they simply must do.

But those who have committed their time, financial resources, and their very bodies to the act of maneuvering a homemade boat down a narrow, shallow river way in sometimes hateful spring weather year after year, well, what would we say about those people? My guess is that we would say “river fever” coupled with tradition.

Gary Stopka, a man who has been participating in the annual 12-mile Rochester Memorial Day Boat Race for four decades, knows the thrill and the challenges of navigating the Mattapoisett River from Rochester to Route 6 in Mattapoisett.

“When you’re in a culvert, you have to lay down and push against the roof,” said Stopka, his eyes alight at the memory and his voice filled with excitement.

Stopka explained that about 17 years ago the race committee held a seminar and only two people showed up. But with declining participation, once as high as 150 entries but more recently down to 50, the committee decided to invite the public to the Rochester Fire Station on April 14 to see just what it takes to build a boat. The result was a very decent turnout and palpable excitement that seemed to infect the children and the adults who came to talk about the race. River fever!

Stopka said that years ago all the boats were wooden and rather heavy, but today with modern materials such as foam and fiberglass, they are quite light and handle more easily. Of the race he said, “What with X-box and cell phones, it’s a different world today.” Yet for those in attendance – many who will be first-time participants – the idea of building a boat and testing one’s mettle in the race is a tradition they want to be part of.

Rochester resident and member of the Conservation Commission Daniel Gagne was there to learn about building a boat with two very enthusiastic chums, his son Blake, 10, and his young pal Corielle Wilkinson, age 9.

“I’ve made boats in Cub Scouts and I saw a video in school that showed the entire race,” Blake said. He’ll be building a boat with the help of his dad and grandfather, David Gagne of Plainville. Grandfather and grandson will partner up in one boat. Wilkinson, who will be working with Daniel Gagne, said, “I’m a little nervous,” but after watching the racers as they came into the finish line in previous years, she’s ready to try her luck.

And that is one of the major draws of this annual event – the teams.

Many teams will be comprised of a parent and child, brothers and sisters, cousins, or friends. It is that human connection that makes this race so special. It’s tradition.

Kelsey Collasius is a returning racer who began her career at the water’s edge with her dad.

“When I was little, we actually stopped along the way and had a picnic before going on,” she said laughing at the memory. Now she takes the race rather seriously. “The goal is to reach the end of the race before all the hot dogs are gone!”

Collasius said it takes a good racer about three to three-and-a-half hours to complete the timed event. She’ll be returning to the race this year with her dad after several years of racing with a female friend.

Collasius said that practicing is a huge and “super important” part to completing the race. “You’re taking a long boat down a narrow little river…. When you get swamped, you lose time.”

Stopka said that constructing a boat takes about 25 hours, and the boat averages between 16 to 18 feet long and only a mere 9 inches high, making them easy to handle but subject to swamping.

Tom Richardson of Mattapoisett attended the open house with his daughter, Summer, age 12.

“I’ve always loved boating and I built a 16-foot skiff before … I wanted to do this race myself!” The father and daughter team will practice, and with Summer’s ballet background, the strength of her core coupled with her dad’s strong arms will surely prove a righteous pairing.

Art Benner knows a thing or two about the race; he’s been involved since the 1950s, is the committee chairman, and a holder of the title “Old Man of the River.”

“My parents took me to see the race when I was a kid,” Benner said.

According to Benner, one of the most critical parts of the entire event is the work done by the timekeepers and spotters, who call in the race number and time as each boat comes across the line.

“It’s a combination of computers and manual records,” said Benner. “We double check everything.”

It is a timed race with boats advancing into the water at the start located at Snipatuit Road at the abutment at Grandma Hartley’s reservoir, with one launched every minute.

David Watling, whose great-uncle James Hartley started the race back in 1934, said that Hartley had been overseeing a 4-H project that required the children to build boats. After the boats were completed, he decided to test them on the river; hence, the race was born. Watling said that there are four portages along the course – two where bogs interrupt the river’s flow, another at Rounseville Road, and a final slog at Wolf Island Road. Then it’s downstream into Mattapoisett.

But Watling said that this year might prove extra challenging with the number of trees that have blown down from winter storms.

“We’ve had to be careful in the past about cutting down trees in the wetlands,” he said. But with 70 trees needing to be removed before race day, the committee has its work cut out for it.

Adding to the flavor of this all-American event is the ham and bean supper a couple of nights before the race. Watling said that in recent years, the Fire Department has lost money on the supper so he was eager to get the word out.

“Come and support the race,” said Watling.

The proceeds from the supper are used to offset race expenses. The ham and bean supper will take place at the Rochester Council on Aging at 5:00 pm on May 26.

There is also a raffle this year. The committee is raffling off two 20-ounce paddles. Compared to standard paddles that weigh in at around 3 pounds, these beauties will certainly make someone’s river race experience much easier.

If you want more information on the Rochester Memorial Day Boat Race, you may contact Art Benner at 508-763-2024 or artbenner@comcast.net. Maybe this is the year you get infected with river-fever!

By Marilou Newell

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