When Delta Kappa fraternity members first plunged into the Wallkill River in 1955, they likely didn’t know they’d started what would become a cherished New Paltz tradition. Sixty years later, the idea of launching homemade parade floats into the water to see if they’ll sink still has legs.
The scene at May 3’s New Paltz Regatta was typical. Participants lined up their wacky watercraft for a parade down Main Street – and the eventual plunge into the drink at the Sojourner Truth Park boat launch. Kids ran down the rail trail, faces painted like tigers and leopards, buzzed from the thrill of the festival. Revelers sat camped out on The Gilded Otter’s lawn, listening to music over the loudspeaker.
In 2015, regatta entries included Adam and Eve, cowboys and Indians, space aliens, and a boat entirely dedicated to the beer Corona Light. Thirteen boats launched, but only eleven finished under the Carmine Liberta Bridge.
New Paltz Regatta typically draws eight to 18 parade boats looking to race down the river. So parade organizer Theresa Fall was happy with the turnout. She also loved that youngsters got involved – a sign of growth and diversity for the event.
Fall added that two middle schools had entered and launched boats. Local businesses sponsoring the event were also generous. For the most part, every boat had the chance to win a prize in categories such as “Best in Show,” “Funniest” or “Most Theatrical.” Winning the race only gives a boat team one win – for the fastest boat category.
And 2015 is probably the first year that a horse featured into one of the parade floats. A mare rode with the Old-West-themed boats.
“Rubber ducky, you’re the one…”
Family of New Paltz executive director Kathy Cartagena made her way through the crowd, escorting two men clutching bags filled with hundreds of rubber duckies. As she neared the bridge’s railing, people crowded around her with smartphones at the ready.
Cartagena’s pretty used to the glee-inducing effect that little yellow ducks can bring. For years, the New Paltz charity has done a rubber ducky race as the part of the regatta – before the boats get underway. People pay $5 to $20 to sponsor a duck or group of ducks. That money goes to help keep Family’s food-pantry stock and its programs running.
“Ready, get set – one, two, three – go!” Cartagena shouted as the little quackers tumbled down from the bridge into in muddy water below. The yellow duckies have an almost-celebrity status that – for that moment – outshone the regatta floats themselves. A man in a blue T-shirt cheered his duck, shouting it encouragement in the speech voice of Donald Duck himself.
“This is better than Nascar,” a young man said as the ducks floated by.
Kayakers from Family of New Paltz waited just downstream to catch the ducks with fishing landing nets, scooping them up to determine the winner. For Family, the ducks do bring in fundraising dollars. But there’s a far simpler motivation behind it all. It’s mostly for fun, just to make people smile, Cartagena said. “I just wanted to give something back to the community. And it’s just grown,” she said.
Family of New Paltz may be the most popular charity group in town, with a large amount of good will behind it. But Cartagena doesn’t take that for granted. The prizes Family gave out in this year’s raffle – everything from wine, to a used bike, to movie tickets – are a good indication of that support, she added. “We have such a generous community,” she said.
Known for its food pantry and substance abuse counseling, Family of New Paltz has expanded its focus on helping the working poor get or keep jobs. Family is piloting a program in 2015 to help people pay for automotive repairs, Cartagena added.
Down, but not out
As the regatta boats pushed off, people on shore swatted at clouds of swarming gnats to get a better view of each boat as it launched.
Tension is built into the event. It’s not unusual for the ungainly parade floats to go under the moment they hit water. For Adam and Eve on the boat “Bamboozled,” the race did end early. The raft, made of thin bamboo rods, sank immediately.
New Paltz Middle School’s boat also capsized right away. But it made an unexpected recovery, powering toward the finish and placing second-to-last.
In his play-by-play, emcee Carl Welden made sure the crowd knew how unlikely that was. New Paltz Middle School’s boat had crossed the finish line with ankle-deep water flooding on board, he said.
New Paltz Karate Academy’s boat technically came in first this year. But 2015 is the first year where the rules have disallowed sophisticated craft, noted KT Tobin, another regatta organizer. In other words, the martial artists were racing for fun – disqualified from the get-go.
The New Paltz youth program’s UFO-themed raft crossed the finish line after the Karate Academy’s boat, placing first because of the new “rafts only” rule. Jim Tinger, the town’s youth program director, was proud of the win. “I’m excited about it,” Tinger said. The win is a first for them. “We’ve been doing it for six or seven years.”
One key to the win was design. The youth program has used previous losses to hone their craft. They built the boat out of hollowed out plastic barrels, stabilizing the vessel with outriggers. Tinger credited Andrew Vlad and John Wilson for playing a huge part in this year’s win.
To see more or learn about previous regatta events, head to www.newpaltzregatta.com.