How to Almost Win a Two Person Raft Race in a Narrow, Shallow, Meandering Creek (with Video!)

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Beautiful Urbanski Farms. (Patrick Gensel)
This Memorial Day weekend, and after three years of invitations from friend Bill Urbanski, I was finally able to attend his family's annual clambake, hosted at Urbanski Farms in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I haven't spent nearly as much time as I'd like to running around outside all day and sleeping in a tent lately, and I can't remember the last raucous gathering I attended with a very large group of strangers that involved both activities.

When we arrived to find giant picnic tables covered with food, kids chasing each other around the farm's giant expanse of open space, a small tent city for overnight guests and a giant pile of brightly colored rubber duck derby-ready ducks, among other things, and I found myself feeling a bit sad. Why had it been so long since I'd spent a day at an event like this? Was it really that long ago that I was as carefree, imaginative, and as in love with being covered and dirt as the kids were?

Grateful for the chance to act like a kid again, competing in the 20th Annual Deena Urbanski Memorial Raft Race seemed like just the cure for the twinge of regret I felt for spending way too much time being serious lately.  The race is named after Bill's mother, who absolutely loved it and participated every year prior to her death from breast cancer in 1997. They've called it the Memorial ever since.

Putting the boat in at the starting line. (Patrick Gensel)
"She always pushed for special rules for older racers because she always had partners her age or older." Bill said.  "My Dad never raced. He was always the official timer until he passed away in 2007. Now my oldest brother Ed has taken over that duty. Brother Ben and I have always been the official starters - Ben giving instruction in the creek, and me giving the countdown from the bridge."

The course runs along a creek barely wide and deep enough for one small raft, and teams try to complete the course as quickly as possible. Each team must have one male and one female racer, and both must navigate the winding, shallow creek while under assault from children armed with seemingly bottomless buckets and cups filled with creek water. After Bill won the race seven straight years in a row, the Clambake Executive Board forbid all Urbanski family members from racing. His course record of 1 minute, 56 seconds, set in 1997 with partner Cheryl Barnes, still stands.

I'd love for this post to provide tips on how to win this and similar races, but alas, my partner and finished in 2 minutes, 12.9 seconds, 0.4 seconds out of first place. (The race was won by a father-daughter team with years of marathon running experience, which obviously contributed to their success.) So instead, I'm only able to give tips on how to almost win.
  1. Pick a partner with a serious battle cry - Without a battle cry, there's no hope. My partner's battle cry was epic, and enough to intimidate even the most serious of the raft racing teams. Practice beforehand. It's best if the cry sounds like the noise a pirate would make while being squeezed by an army of children.
  2. Position yourselves for maximum efficiency - Though we both barely fit in the raft, we learned from other experienced racers that having the stronger paddler lay down on their stomach in the front while the other sat on their knees in the back to steer was the most efficient setup. Make sure both parties are clear on their roles.
  3. Choose collapsible paddles and don't tighten them all the way - Given the option of solid, hand-carved wooded paddles and collapsible plastic paddles, always choose the latter. When the paddles collapse in the middle of the race, you'll have an excuse as to why you didn't win. Plus, it provides an added challenge.
  4. Avoid getting marooned on most, but not all stray rocks, grassy patches and shallow gravel bars - Even with the addition of a dam near the finish line, the creek was still barely deep enough in spots for our raft to maneuver through. But who cares? Running aground gives you a chance to dig in and pull through the gravel to generate more power, right?
  5. Don't have a strategy at all - This is, by far, the most important pointer. For those of us who are more competitive than is generally healthy, it helps to just try and have fun once in a while. Also, each member of the winning team receives an entire quart of Urbanski Farms maple syrup, and honestly, who can eat that much maple syrup anyway? It's much better to come in second and only have a pint to deal with.
  6. Make sure to capture the entire thing on camera - As part of Columbia's OmniTen team, all ten of us were provided with GoPro cameras for use in a special, super secret mission on our upcoming trip to Sedona, AZ and the Grand Canyon. As I'm usually the type to throw the instruction manual out and wing it, it seemed like I should wing it before we actually use the cameras for the mission. Here's the (shaky) product of the first test!


 
 
Overall, regardless of the fact that we didn't land on top of the podium, I had an incredible time racing and enjoying the rest of the day's activities. Thank you so much to Bill and the entire Urbanski family for including us in the festivities! If you've got tips on how to actually win, please leave a comment. I'm not taking second again next year!

2 comments :

Elizabeth said...

Fun!

Katie Levy said...

 it was indeed :) and I loved that the race had such a legacy and such meaning. it brought a little bit of seriousness to an otherwise ridiculous event!