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Spectators line a bridge on the St. Marys to see participants race toward the finish line Saturday afternoon.

3RF Raft Race's return a splash

Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Participants in the Raft Race paddle along the St. Marys River on Saturday afternoon in their homemade rafts.

– The S.S. Go Getter, made of fencing planks, plastic barrels and an old bicycle engineered to run a paddle underneath the man-made raft, had a look that was as ambitious as its name.

It stood 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and Eric Smith thought he and his shipmates had a winner on their hands – maybe.

"Look at it. It has the size and a group of charming good-looking guys on it. That's all you really need," Smith joked Saturday as he awaited his maiden voyage in the Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival Raft Race.

After a 15-year hiatus, the Raft Race made quite a splash as the festival came to a close. Despite early-morning showers that caused an hour delay, 67 homemade rafts were placed on the St. Marys River by cranes that trudged across the muddy riverbanks in Swinney Park just west of downtown.

Shawna Nicelley, race chairwoman and festival board member, said each raft had teams of three to 10 sailors. In total, about 500 people steering nearly 70 rafts competed for cash prizes totaling $14,000.

"Everybody here has been so excited. We had people bring us pizza last night and doughnuts this morning. They seem to be really grateful and really happy to be back on the rivers," Nicelley said.

After a noon start, The Viking Ship raft was the first team to make it to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge just north of downtown about 12:30 p.m., winning the $2,000 first-place prize. Members donned Viking helmets to complete the Nordic theme.

A bridge-shaped raft paddled by the Concordia Crew team followed behind, winning the $1,000 second-place prize.

Jose Hernandez, captain of the S.S. Go Getter, said his four-member team all work for Gleave Construction, which sponsored their raft. Moving to Fort Wayne from Aurora, Ill., Hernandez is never shy to try new things, he said, and the event seemed like a good way to connect with his co-workers and other competitors.

"We're looking to have fun. It was more about the experience and to meet people in the community and show what we can do," Hernandez said. "It was time for us guys to get together and do a project together outside of work."

Nicelley said that at one time the raft race was the second-largest spectator event in Indiana. Its return brought a mix of veteran and rookie racers who want to revitalize the tradition, she said.

"It was here for a long time, so you heard your dad talk about it, you heard your grandpa talk about it, and now you have these young kids going, 'I wish we had something to do like that.'

"They think it's fun to follow in dad's footsteps a little bit. You know, back in the day – when dad was cool."

Kyle Twigg and his son Tyler had a six-member team to row their raft, The Trash Man, sponsored by Advanced Disposal. Twigg said they reused the wood from their neighbors' demolished deck. Compared with the SS Go Getter, Twigg kept the design modest, pointing to a cup holder as the only accessory.

"It was something to do with my son," he said. "We spent a lot of time working together and figuring out what we're going to do and how we're going to do it."

As for next year, Nicelley said the raft race's return depends on the support of sponsors and overall response of spectators.

While she didn't expect the race to bring in the 40,000 spectators it once did, the number of people who lined up on the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge more than an hour before the race showed positive potential.

"I want people to be more aware of the rivers, to be aware of what an asset it is," she said. "When we have fun, we start to appreciate the rivers and take better care of them."

Festival photo galleries