The Great Race: From Disco Days To Ducks

For a number of years, Sunrise Rotary has sponsored a Great Duck Race. It’s a fun fundraiser — you bet on rubber duckies that are dumped into the Saugatuck River. The day is filled with kids’ activities like a bouncy house, a climbing wall and dunk tank.

This year’s event — on Saturday, June 13 — will be preceded by a 5K run, sponsored by Staples High School’s Interact community service club.

It’s a wonderful town event — something that makes money for good causes, and brings plenty of Westporters together.

But those who were here back in the day remember its predecessor: the Great Race. That was to the current incarnation as Gloria Gaynor is to Taylor Swift.

You don’t believe me? Check out this video.

You can see a lot of bizarre stuff on YouTube. But this ranks right up there.

In tones befitting Marlon Perkins on “Wild Kingdom” — or, this century, an endangered-species documentary on the National Geographic Channel — a narrator breathlessly describes what seems to be a very odd tradition in our coastal community.

“Just another lazy day along the river in Westport, Connecticut,” the 1977* video begins. “Except that this is the day of the Great Race.”

After describing the event — a 1-mile run, a 3-mile row or paddle out to Cockenoe Island, picking up 1 pound of garbage, then rowing or paddling back for a 1st-place prize of $1,000 — the narrator declares that on Great Race Day, Westport is the center of “high international drama.” (Cut to an interview with an Australian guy.)

Just a couple of Great Racers being interviewed.

Just a couple of Great Racers being interviewed.

There are classic quotes — “We run to the liquor store to get our bodies in shape” — interspersed with vintage shots of downtown, and the not-sure-if-it’s-tongue-in-cheek-or-not description of a team that trained “in a handmade aluminum craft for an entire year, just for this race.”

In fact, I’m not sure if the entire video is serious, a satire, or just a goof. When you see 2 teams fighting over a piece of garbage on Cockenoe, you’ll wonder too.

Running down Taylor Place, to the start at the Post Road bridge.

Running down Taylor Place, to the boat launch at the Post Road bridge.

But — as the narrator notes — “constant seamanship and vigilance” were keys to winning the Great Race.

And, at the end, “the townspeople have come together with their picnic lunches to cheer and debate their favorites. The memories will keep for a whole year.”

See you June 13 at the Great Duck Race!

Paddling ...

Paddling …

...and partying at a house on the river, as the racers go by.

…and partying at a house on the river, as the racers go by.

*YouTube says the video is from 1977. However, the bicentennial flag, and several comments, would indicate it is actually from 1976.

(Hat tips: Jack Whittle, Ted Friedman, Rich Stein)


27 responses to “The Great Race: From Disco Days To Ducks

  1. Jack Whittle

    With no disrespect to the Duck race, there really is no comparison to the Great Race that took place every summer in Westport during the 70s and early 80s. The Great Race involved physical competition (when was the last time you ran a mile and then rowed or paddled to Cockenoe and back from Jesup Green?) coupled with environmental concern (by design it was meant to clean up Cockenoe), but most of all it was a true small town “event” in every sense of the word, with teams planning their strategy and building their boats well in advance, and of course, a real small town party atmosphere. The Great Race had a good times, local vibe going on like nothing Westport has seen since; I miss it.

  2. Wendy Crowther

    I got such a kick out of the old video. The race really was fun – the whole town turned out and cheered. It was a huge block party. The men in the Silver Tongue and the women from Ann Marie’s Figure Forum were the crew’s to beat. I competed in a two-person canoe with a friend one year. We were both fit but it was really tough work. The following year I was a member of the pit crew for a team of male friends who were hell-bent on beating the Silver Tongue. They didn’t succeed.

    Between Great Races, the Silver Tongue would be stored off to the side of one of the parks on Riverside Ave. It remained there years after the Great Race came to an end. If you look hard enough, maybe its decomposed bones can still be found beneath the weeds!

    Jack Whittle described the Great Race beautifully above. I miss it too.

  3. don l bergmann

    What a hoot, fabulous. The music reminding me of Woody Allen films. Lots of “treasures” evident, we all will find our own. One treasure also is Dan Woog. Thanks. Dan
    Don Bergmann

  4. Michael Calise

    Simply said the Great Race was GREAT!

  5. Bettina Calise Cooleen

    Some of my fondest memories are of the Great Race. I’ll never forget the year a group of guys came strolling out of the waters of South Beach dressed in business suits with umbrellas fully opened – simply brilliant! Westport truly was a special place to grow up in!

  6. As Phil Rizzuto used to say: “Holy cow!” What a great find.

    I actually have still photos from the race that year (as a spectator).

    One thing that always puzzled me: how did so much garbage accumulate at Cockenoe to warrant the level of cleanup that apparently had to be done in this race?

    • I guess all the teenagers who partied on Cockenoe were not aware of the bring-it-in-pack-it-out concept of garbage removal. Also, I always wondered what would prevent an unscrupulous crew from stashing a pound of garbage in their canoe, paddling out to Cockenoe, then turning right around to come home?

    • Jack Whittle

      The sound was simply much more full of trash back then as well, and much of it washed up on Cockenoe; it probably had less to do with the few kids who made it out there to party but it seemed like all who visited the island left their trash there. Also, the time Westport still had at least one trash dump operating on the river, and another one along the river had just closed (what lies beneath the Levitt Pavillion), with other towns having similar dumps on the water and stray trash (mostly floating cans and bottles) making its way into the Sound. So many glass bottles washed up and broke on Cockenoe that it was a beach glass collectors paradise back then.

  7. What an amazing town memory. To take part in a new town event, sign up for the Great Duck Race 5K Fun Run here!
    Staples High School Interact Club is working very hard to make this happen and would love to see you there on June 13th! All proceeds will be donated to Homes with Hope. Email or visit for more info!

  8. To be honest, ex-pat, my older brother Michael Stein posted this gem of a video. I remember “THE GREAT RACE” it was truly GREAT! I wish more of these town “Block Party” fundraising events existed today… It was such a fun good feeling time!!! I too miss it. Let’s bring it back

  9. The guy with the blue face paint certainly was excited to be part of it! 😉

  10. David Eason

    Remember it well. What the film does not show is the party that followed at Longshore with multiple tractor trailer trucks full of beer. What fun times!!

  11. Sandy Soennichsen

    That was when it truly was a “Great Race.” Rubber ducks floating down the river?????? C;mon, what’s the fun in that? People can do that in their bathtubs. But lets get some real people out for some fun, some exercise, some worthy cause, and of course, some great entertainment. And Schlitz was always a great sponsor.

  12. Rich Stein

    Just a thought I bet we could come up with a SIC FUN TOUGH MUDDER TYPE RACE that would celebrate Westport and fitness and the exercise craziness we know and love

  13. Bobbie Herman

    I moved to Westport in 1983, too late to see this Great Race. It really looks like fun. But I remember in the late ’80s another race taking place on the Saugatuck. I believe it was also run by the Rotary, and consisted of homemade crafts, each one wackier than the next. Do you have any information about that Dan? Also — do you recognize any of today’s “Town Elders” in the 1977 film?

  14. Great to know that the Rotary duck races are so popular, that so many community projects profit. Our numbered “ducks” are dumped by helicopter!

    As far as the Great Race of ’76, we sure looked good(?)

  15. Ah, I remember it well (even after the Great Race parties). The first two years we had Friendly’s sponsor our team – the second year we swamped our canoe! So for the third year (I think it was either ’76 or ’77), we built our 3-man boat out of 15′ of sheet aluminum and scrap lumber. Named it Beer Money – we were either going to win our beer money, or spend it on the boat… We didn’t do too well, broke half of our (borrowed) oars, but won the best boat built out of trash. We were insulted, till we found out there was a prize of $100. The next year, we expanded it to 30′ and 4 rowers, did a bit better. Eventually, each year we added to it, and got the boat up to 44′, 6 rowers and a coxswain, even with homemade oars. One year, we were trying to move the 44′ boat on a Ford Pinto from Wilton, and a Wilton cop pulled up. He pretty much said that what we were doing moving the boat that way was probably illegal, but from the looks of it, we could not afford a flatbed trailer to haul it. So he said to not have an accident in his area, because he would not know how to do the paperwork! By this time (early to mid ’80’s) the town took over the race as the “Super Boat Race”, and got rid of the party! Silver Tongue and Ships, the BIG boats early on in the history of the race were long gone, so our only real competition was Seat Of My Pants, a very cool crew with a boat made out of old blue jeans. In fact, one year we had a bet with Seat Of My Pants – whoever won the race sponsored the after-race party (they won that year). We did split winning the race the last 5 years with SOMP, with Beer Money 3, SOMP 2. The last year, the town had simplified the race so everyone left from Compo, rowed to Cockenoe and back, no run and no garbage. The start was a disaster with everyone running into each other’s boats, and the race too short. Beer Money was eventually recycled, probably appropriately into beer cans. But we had a great run (and row)!

  16. Jo Dickison

    I moved to Westport in the mid-70s and simply took the Great Race for granted — that that sort of event wasn’t all that unusual. How wrong I was, and how insanely fun that outrageous spectacle turned out to be year after year.

  17. Byron Miller

    I moved to Westport in ’76 and recall The Great Race as a wonderful, happy event. However I heard Dark Stories about some shady doings in its latter years. As Cockenoe Island got cleaned up year after year, it became harder and harder for all competitors to actually find a pound of garbage and rumors spread that some wicked ones concealed a pound of garbage in their boats at the start and paused but briefly once they got to Cockenoe. I have never actually heard this straight from the mouth of one of the aforementioned “wicked ones” but if it’s true, they know who they are and must live with themselves somehow…

    • I believe the statute of limitations is up on that nefarious behavior.

      • Eben in earlier years of the race, unless you were o e of the first to the island, it was hard to find enough garbage – a testiment to the effectiveness of the race to clean up the island. After the town took it over, you just had to check in on the island. No garbage required.

        • Love auto correct. I wanted to say that even in the earlier days of the race, unless you were one of the first…

  18. Margaret Hart Rynshall

    I have pictures of you, Ed Davis and your Beer Money team. My little sister is Mary Ellen Hart Campbell. They’re part of a collage I made for her 50th birthday. Those were some really fun times and The Great Race is one of my favorite Westport memories.

    • Margaret, tell Mary Ellen I said “hey!”. I do remember her coming out, rooting us on.

  19. I am 99% positive that my dad is one of the band members seen on stage at about 0:30. I wish there was more footage of the band so that I can confirm. If anyone here has any info on the band that played that day, please post it here.