As the first Saturday in August approaches each summer, skilled maritime engineers throughout Blaine, Birch Bay and beyond begin to comb the beaches for raft-building materials. Buoyant driftwood, sun-bleached styrofoam, salty rope and even mangled crab pots have all been used to build rafts for the Prestigious George Raft Race.
A staple of Drayton Harbor Days, the Prestigious George Raft Race is an annual competition of ingenuity and athletic skill. Contestants must propel a homemade raft, made from found materials, across a quarter-mile course on Drayton Harbor. The rules of the race are simple: raft materials must be found (not purchased), contestants must be on the raft (not in it), and participants must wear a life jacket at all times and sign a “hold-harmless” agreement before the race. Four people are allowed on each raft, and dogs are accepted but cats are prohibited from competition, said race founder Bob Knapp.
The race runs from the public boat launch at the end of Milhollin Drive to Gate Two on Marine Drive. The first team to cross
the finish line wins the race and takes home the Prestigious George Raft trophy. Much like Lord Stanley’s beloved cup, the trophy is engraved with each year’s winning team, and winners keep the trophy for the entire year between races. It was carved by Knapp from pieces of wood left over from the restoration of the Plover ferry, which runs between Blaine Harbor Marina and Semiahmoo spit.
Drayton Harbor Maritime director Richard Sturgill and boat builder Jon Werdal are representing the Salishan neighborhood in this year’s race. Their entry, the Salishan Black Bear, is shrouded in mystery, just as the sailboats entering the America’s Cup are kept secret until race day. Sturgill and Werdal admitted their raft was made from a found sheet of black plastic, but declined to reveal more.
“We don’t want to give away raft secrets,” Sturgill said. “This is serious business. We’re challenging everyone to beat the Salishan Black Bear this year.”
Knapp brought the race to Blaine in 2000. A native of England, he had taken part in similar races in his home country.
“It started as an inter-pub competition in the little village of Lynton, in North Devon,” Knapp said. “The races are popular in a lot of towns, and they usually go down rivers either to the mouth of the bay or to a marked finish line.”
George Raft was a Hollywood actor famous for roles in gangster movies, but Knapp said the name of the race is also British rhyming slang.
“George raft is slang for having a laugh,” he said. “So the race is all about having fun.”
Sturgill and Werdal, although confident in the superiority of their raft design, said they are always excited to see the concepts people come up with for their homemade rafts.
“It’s an egalitarian competition. Anyone who has the courage and imagination to cobble together flotsam and give it a go is welcome to enter, and it’s all in the good spirit of friendly competition,” Sturgill said.
Friendly competition includes taking measures to slow down or distract your opponent. For instance, Sturgill and Werdal say they plan on putting together a crew to man a couple of water cannons during the race.
Werdal said there is plenty of time to get a raft together. Contestants have been known to finish their rafts at the boat launch during orientation before the race.
“It’s a procrastinator’s dream race,” he said.
A safety boat from the Coast Guard Auxiliary will be on hand to keep racers safe.
The race begins at 1 p.m. on Saturday, August 3. Orientation begins at 12:30 p.m. For those seeking last minute supplies, Drayton Harbor Maritime has raft-building materials on hand in the Port of Bellingham’s web locker on Marine Drive. Anyone interested in borrowing supplies or learning more about the race can contact Sturgill by calling 360/332-5742.