The Great (Duck) Race

Tomorrow’s 4th annual Great Duck Race (Saturday, June 30) is a great excuse to go downtown.

Starting at 10 a.m., there’s here’s children’s arts and crafts, face painting, a bounce castle, “duck decorating,” music and food.

At 1 p.m. 3000 ducks — each with a number — will be dropped into the Saugatuck River near the Post Road Bridge. A boom will be pulled away; they’ll “race” 200 feet. (Fear not: The ducks are made of “an environmentally sensitive compound.”)

Dumping the ducks into the boom.

If a duck you bought ($20 each) with your number is one of the 1st 10, you’ll win a prize. First prize is a $5,000 Visa gift card; 2nd prize is a $1,000 card, and 3rd through 10th are $500 Visa cards. (You don’t have to be present to win.)

All well and good (and for a good cause: Westport Sunrise Rotary, and all their good works).

But Westporters with long memories remember a different “Great Race.” And the racers were humans, not ducks.

The 1st Great Race was held in 1976, as part of America’s bicentennial celebration. It lasted a few years.

In 1991, Sunrise Rotary resurrected it. It was an all-hands-0n deck competition. Kayaks, canoes, dinghies, windsurfers, catamarans — and everything else, from Tom Sawyer rafts, to boats in the shape of Smurfs and Elvis, to science experiment failures — were launched from the library park.

They made their way (hopefully) to Cockenoe Island. There, sailors dodged rats and gnats as they picked up a trash bag of garbage.

Every July from 1991 to 1999, Great Racers cleaned up garbage.

Then — powered only by their own muscle (and, sometimes, prodigious amounts of beer) — they returned to the Post Road bridge. Prizes were awarded for fastest time, most garbage and silliest boat.

The event required tons of work. Sunrise Rotary member Pete Wolgast quickly ascended the Great Race organizational ladder. One year after overseeing Port-o-Potties, he was general manager.

The job entailed everything from finding the right day (the tide had to be high around noon) to overseeing the Jesup Green fair. There were live bands, plus 15 to 20 booths featuring face painting, horse rides, slides, a dunk tank and food stands. (The Daughters of the British Empire sold strawberries and cream.)

The Great Race also included skydiver Howard Burling (the former Westport cop aimed for a spot between the green and the river), and post office booth to cancel special Great Race stamps designed by local artists. For a while, the race itself was even broadcast on WICC.

During its time the Great Race raised well over $100,000, which the Sunrise Rotary distributed to local and international charities.

In 1999 Pete became president of Sunrise Rotary. No one had all the time needed to organize the Great Race, so it was “suspended.” (The club turned to a more traditional fundraiser: a wine tasting.)

Four years ago, Sunrise Rotary resurrected the event — this time as a ducks-only affair.

But — whether you’re paddling your own boat, or hoping that duck in front has your lucky number — it’s still a great race.

12 responses to “The Great (Duck) Race

  1. hopefully no fowl weather for the race…..

  2. Rindy Higgins, Guest Curator

    Actually, the first “Great Race” was on July 4,1876 to celebrate the first Centennial of American Independence! The competing “boats” and “tubs.” started at Jesup’s Wharf (Jesup Green) and continued down the Saugatuck River. First prize was $3, second prize, $2, and third prize, $1.

    For more information, come check out the display at the Westport Historical Society’s exhibit The Sound and The Saugatuck.

  3. You would know that… Rindy, you are amazing!

  4. My dad was in the (other) first Great Race!!!

  5. Thanks for posting about this event, Dan. It’s our third day in town and I took our boys down to check it out. It was fun, but I thought I’d offer a couple of newcomer observations – the Duck Decorating Contest listed on the brochure and mentioned above is not available to walk-ins like us. We were excited to decorate a duck, but you have to obtain them ahead of time and bring them decorated. Also, the event was listed as running until 2pm but most booths were pulling out before 1:30pm. My 6 year old was turned away from the craft booth. The race itself is quirky and fun to watch and people were having a good time, but it’s wise to arrive early.

  6. My sons plus several friends won the first “Junk Boat” prize. When notified of winning, their reaction was “We are not a Junk Boat.” When told that
    there was a $100 prize, they quickly changed their mainds and agreed that
    they were indeed a “Junk Boat.” Which, incidentally, they entered in several
    following Races . . . Umpire Bob

    • Beer Money won the Junk Boat award in 1977 – a three-person, 16-foot, marginally-floatable boat made out of scrap lumber and aluminum, and yes, as my Dad stated above, we were not proud and took the money. Each year we added to the same boat, so by the early 80’s it was 44-feet long, with 6 rowers and a coxwain. We won three out of the last five races, losing to Seat Of My Pants (a 5 or 6-person boat made out of old blue jeans) the other two years. In the early years of the Great Race (the first one was in 1974), the big boat competition was always between Ships and Silver Tongue. Rumor had it that thousands of dollars were spend on the boats and side bets. We spend no more than a couple of hundred dollars total over the years, and the only side bet we had with Seat of My Pants is that whoever won threw the after-race party.

  7. Westport Sunrise Rotary invites all who are interested in community service and camaraderie to join their weekly meetings at Bobby Q’s , 42 Main Street, Westport, Fridays at 7:30 a.m., featuring a buffet breakfast, high jinx, serious conversation, and a timely and informative speaker. For more information about Westport Sunrise Rotary, visit the club’s website at ; contact Sheila Keenan, membership, 203-856-9172 , ; or attend a meeting.

  8. I canoed out to the island on 8/24. I don’t think I will ever go back. I could not believe the amount of garbage on the island. I found a mesh bag the size of a garbage bag and filled it up in about 5 minutes and there was probably enought trash to fill a thousand such bags. The worst was a plastic bag full of dog poop and another of dirty diapers.