Photos by Lauren Thomas
It was touch-and-go in the week leading up to last Sunday’s New Paltz Regatta whether the wild weather and subsequent flooding of the Flats would permit this year’s event to go forward. “We didn’t find out until 10:15 this morning. It had been on standby because of the flooding; there was a chance that they might not have been able to put the boats in the water,” recalled Regatta co-chair Debbie Rauch as what turned out to be a very successful event was finally winding down. But the skies cleared after another rainy night; the New Paltz police and fire departments gave the go-ahead and a happy crowd showed up for the afternoon’s festivities. “We had 2,500 people out there, and nobody had a bad time!”
Still, the dozen handmade watercraft entered in Regatta 2014 faced more challenging conditions than usual in navigating the typically slow and placid Wallkill River. Although what had been several feet of standing water a few days earlier at Sojourner Truth Park had receded by Sunday at 1 p.m., launching the boats required some slow and tricky maneuvering through ankle-deep mud. Meanwhile, the powerful current and brisk tailwind were making it impossible for the boats already launched to hold their places upstream of the cable marking the start line for the waterborne parade. Only the New Paltz Karate Academy’s dragon boat had a seaworthy enough design and a disciplined enough crew to paddle against the current and return to its start point.
Before long, the flotilla broke apart entirely and all semblance of order was thrown to the winds. Some crews were forced to paddle backwards as the swirling currents turned their crafts around; others were driven into shore and the paddlers thwacked in the face by drooping tree branches because the water level was so high. But as veterans of the event know well, the New Paltz Regatta has always been something of an exercise in pleasurable chaos. Nobody really expects a formal and orderly procession, and the occasional sinking or capsizing is regarded as part of the fun. “The Regatta is not a boat race,” cautioned emcee Carl Welden during the parade of floats down Main Street that kicked off the event. “Think of it more as a pageant.”
Trends in boat design tend to vary from year to year. This time there were two retro tie-dyed, Woodstock Festival-themed crafts, one sponsored by Woodland Pond and the other by ShopRite. Both Gardiner Recycling and the Circleville Middle School BottleHeads used bundles of recycled plastic containers as flotation devices for their boats. Pirate themes were much in evidence, thanks to Snug Harbor and a group of soon-to-be-unemployed St. Francis Hospital workers. And a couple of boats seemed to be setting sail for desert islands: The New Paltz Youth Program’s Castaways paddled an “outrigger canoe” made of oil drums painted to look like a floating log, while New Paltz Taxi’s craft was decked out for a luau with tiki torches, garlands of greenery and a bunch of beefy guys in grass skirts and seashell bras.
“The sixth time’s the charm,” observed a Darth Vader-costumed crewman of the Viking Industries boat, built in the shape of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon in observance of May the Fourth (Be with You). As a Family of New Paltz fundraising project for a class called Participation in Government, Literature and Economics for Today’s Students, the New Paltz High School Piglets created a pig-motif craft whose design was ambitious but not especially buoyant, wallowing rather low in the muddy water like…well, like a pig in mud. Bringing up the rear was an Astroturf-covered floating ballfield, sponsored by Curasi Realty on behalf of New Paltz Baseball.
After all crews had landed safely ashore north of the Carmine Liberta Bridge, a team of judges consisting of Cindy Ricci, Joe DeMaria and Ron Lapp awarded prizes to the competitors in such categories as Most Original, Most Inventive, Most Elegant, Most Enthusiastic, Most Determined, Most Fun, Most Creative and Most Dangerous. But since many of the teams had already headed home by the time the judges concurred, the prize packages ended up being handed out to whichever competitors were still on hand, and it became impossible to report with any degree of accuracy on who won what. Nobody really seemed to care; it was just all about having fun.
Three winning numbers from the Rubber Ducky Race to benefit Family were drawn, but the prizewinners had not been identified as of presstime. One lucky fellow was a double winner: Paul Schembri of Curbside Cuisine, whose food truck ran out of nearly everything on the menu and who also took home the $125 grand prize in the 50/50 raffle. “The downtown businesses are doing great on account of this event. Pretty much all of the vendors are sold out,” noted Rauch. “It’s nice that so many people came out.”
In addition to the logistical support of the police and fire departments, the Woodcrest Bruderhof Community turned out in full force for the Regatta once again, giving away snacks and collecting donations for Family. The Gilded Otter hosted the event; Welden loaned his sound system; and deejay Bona-Q kept the platters spinning in between Welden’s announcements and commentary. Yard Sale provided live music at the launch site and Moving Voices at the Groovy Blueberry Outlet across the street from the Otter.
“We’ve also got the YMCA [of Southern Ulster] here, getting early registrations for summer camp” at Camp Wiltmeet, said Rauch. “That’s phenomenal. And there was a bit of controversy this year over the river, how polluted it is, whether it was safe to go in it. So we had Riverkeeper here all day to answer questions about the health of the Wallkill.”
Such concerns may help explain why so many boat crews headed home (for a shower?) before they could claim their prizes. But if the broad smiles on people’s faces as this year’s Regatta drew to a close were any indication, it was another banner year for this venerable-but-fun New Paltz institution.