Amidst the chaos that was the First and Last Annual Early County Raft Race was one shining beacon of hope. No, it wasn’t the Firesmith Float. Six college guys built, and tested, a raft made out of four bicycle frames attached to a deck, supported by steel drums. The bikes were pedaled and that caused a paddlewheel in the back to turn. They cruised around while the rest of us seadogs struggled with such things as staying upright. The Firesmith Float, on the other hand, had a couple of drawbacks. The first was the Styrofoam began breaking apart. We looked like a snowstorm in slow motion. The second challenge was the blocks of Styrofoam were so buoyant we were sitting three feet about the surface of the water, and that made the craft incredibly unstable, and nearly impossible to board. Oh, and how did that sail thing work out? Nary had a breeze rippled the water, nay!
The starting gun sounded, our sail was unfurled, and it looked a lot like we were going to sit right there until the river’s current moved us, which wasn’t going to happen because they had the locks closed at the dam in Fort Gaines, which was upstream of us. That mean we, and everyone else, would have to sail, paddle, or swim to the finish line, which was over five miles away. The sponsors of the event hadn’t taken into account the river might not be flowing. Worse, the wind picked up, and started blowing upstream, instead of down. The raft that consisted of twelve inner tubes lashed together by eleven drunks and carrying one keg of beer looked destined to be at the starting point for the rest of the day, but they did not care. They paddled out to the middle of the river and started singing. I wanted to join them.
My father had brought boat paddles so we paddled away. Want to know what it was like? Take four washing machines, put a plywood deck on top them, then put those wheels that barely turn from shopping carts on the bottom of the washing machines, and then use boat paddles to push it uphill for five miles. That was what it was like. With the wind pushing against them even if the college guys were having a hard time but they pulled away from the pack like a turtle racing a wino uphill in the snow. Incredibly, we were in second place, simple because no one else was trying. After a couple hundred yards, people realized that five miles was a very long way. Without a current in the river, it was going to be an ordeal.
And it was.
Remember the scene in “Ben Hur” where he’s told “row well and you will live” it was like that. My father was convinced we could catch the college raft. I timed how long it took us to get to where they were from where we were and a half hour passed. The next time forty minutes went by. Finally, a boat pulled up from one of the sponsors of the event and they told us most of the other people had quit, and if we wanted to, they would tow us back.
Show of hands from those who think my father took the easy way out. Uh-huh, that’s what I thought.
So we rowed and rowed and rowed, and boats passed us full of ex-rafters going to the finish line to relax a bit, and the college raft gained more speed and distance, and behind us people were packing it in. After five or six hours, we gained the finish line, but the college guys were long gone, and really, no one else was hanging around either. By that time we had left a long stream of broken Styrofoam behind us, and I’m sure some of it is still there today.
The eleven drunks and their beer keg? They refused to be pulled in because they were having a great time, and landed on a sandbar. They drank themselves silly until nearly dark before accepting rescue. In one of life’s great ironies, I would one day become friends with two of the people from that group, and they all commented on how terribly weird we looked rowing the Firesmith Float down the river.
The Firesmith Float sat in our garage for a very long time, and each time my father started talking about sailing, we all ran for cover. To this very day, however, if you go into the garage, you can find tiny pieces of Styrofoam.