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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.

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