Friday Flashback #257

Last week’s Friday Flashback featured a 1967 poster It advertised a rally at Town Hall, to “Save Cockenoe Island” (from an electric utility, which wanted to build a nuclear power plant there).

This week’s Flashback also features a poster. It too references an August event — almost exactly 30 years ago today. And — go figure — it too has a strong Cockenoe connection.

(Poster and photo courtesy of Andrew Estey)

Well, check out this video:

There’s 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.”

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.

It was a tradition that lasted from the ’70s into the ’90s. If you participated in the Great Race — as a boater, a spectator or the guy who delivered the kegs — we’d love to hear what you remember. (If, of course, you remember anything.)

Click “Comments” below. Ahoy!

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

Bonus photo: Schlitz sponsored the Great Race. The guys dressed up as Schlitz cans were high school students (the drinking age in Connecticut was 18 back then). They did not win the race — but they did win the Best Costume award.

18 responses to “Friday Flashback #257

  1. I remember the great race. I always dreamed of running in it.

  2. The Great Race was always so much fun for both the participants and spectators. Westport should reinstate it!

  3. I remember lifeguarding it from a kayak in the early 1990s. Some of the boats were pretty scary.

  4. We participated in it every year….the best event of the year, what a hoot! The best visual for me was one year when too many other family members bumped me out of the crew and I had to wait at a very foggy South Beach for the finish leg from Cockenoe to arrive…3 guys dressed in bowlers and tuxes walked up out of the water holding umbrellas and newspapers with no sign of a boat in site, it had sunk. Brilliant!!

  5. That was fun – the film is terrific! I had never seen that. I covered the first Great Race for the boating newspaper SOUNDINGS. In that first event there was much more emphasis on BIZARRE. There was a crew in something like a hollowed-out telephone pole and another large contraption with bicycle pedals. Many participants had painted faces. The possibility of winning the $1000. prize was not uppermost in their minds but one participant knew that speed would win the money and he was on his way back from Cockenoe in a kayak before many others arrived. I’ll send photos for a later re-visit if you’d like.

  6. THANK YOU. It brings back some great memories.

  7. Two friends and I competed one year in a borrrowed canoe. Though we were young and fit, it was actually quite hard to paddle from town out to Cockenoe and back. By then, there wasn’t much trash on the island to collect so we simply landed on the beach and turned around. There was a headwind on the way back and it was choppy. We were wiped out by the time we returned. No prizes for us, just a lot of fun.

  8. First year 1974ish??? We were at the party at Longshore and had the front left table in the ballroom. Tractor trailers containing beer out front. It was insane but it sure was fun. No way it could be pulled off again in this day and age.

    • Bill Strittmatter

      Sounds like a ‘70s thing. I recall there was a Great Race on the Genesee River in Rochester in the mid ‘70s with handmade boats/rafts. I seem to recall it ended after a few year since it was mostly a drunken beer bash that left considerable debris in the river/shoreline from disintegrating boats rather than helping to clean it.

  9. Fabulous video! Wish the Great Race continued. What could possibly go wrong??!!!

  10. The Great Race was one of the sort of thing that’s hard to explain to your kids or residents that have moved here during the last 30 years – it was as much a carnival as it was an actual race, with teams planning and building their craft (I don’t dare use the term “boat” here) and training for months in advance – with all comers welcome. And originally based on the laudable goal of cleaning up Cockenoe, which had a lot of trash washing up on its shores back then.

    That 1977 youtube video does a pretty good job capturing the vibe

  11. Chip Stephens. SHS 73

    Free beer at the race finish line which was under where the bridge from library to the women’s club. Free beer at Longshore which lasted one year as some autos went “off corse”. The next year the post race free beer blast moved to a house on a high spot that one could see the sound. Or maybe that was the beer…

  12. I was there taking some still photos that year and/or in 1978. There was also a Sidewalk Sale happening that day/weekend so Main Street was indeed very festive.

    Also, I was 23/24 back then and, while I considered myself in relatively good shape from playing soccer, tennis, basketball, etc. I don’t think there was any way I could have rowed a boat or paddled a canoe out to Cockenoe and back by myself, so my hat’s off to those entrants who were able to do that.

    Finally, I thought people in general by then were far more cognizant about not littering. So I’m surprised there was still so much garbage on Cockenoe in the late 1970s.

    • Fred – bear in mind that many towns along the Sound, including Westport (!), had landfills (nice word for a dump) right along the sound and rivers that flowed directly into the sound well into the late 70s, so the possibility of floating debris in the Sound was high. Plus, folks were A LOT less litter-conscious back then in general – heck dumping waste into the oceans and places like the sound was still regarded as an acceptable practice in the 70s – RCRA (which actually addressed the open dumping of waste – but not offshore!) was only passed in 1976.

      Personally, I recall going out to Cockenoe in the mid-70s and collecting beach glass in large quantities. None to be found out there today.

  13. Urban Carmel and I did the race around 1980 in his (rather bulky) sea kayak. We did train for months, and because we were varsity runners, reached the boat launch with a healthy lead. But on the way to Cockenoe a guy in a single scull passed us easily, and another on the return trip. We ended up at the finish line (Compo that year) in third place – no cash but nice certificates and John LaBarca interviewed us live on WMMM. Our greatest victory was beating Rick Davis’ (past-champion) Beer Money racing team, who talked more trash that year than they actually collected =)

  14. Peter Gambaccini

    1974 was the first year. The race was created by Bill Russell, who’d been Staples class of 1966.

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