First-time racers, returning champs, spectators welcomed the warm weather for the 46th annual White Water Derby competition in Mechanicville on Sunday.
According to Sam Carabis of the Tenandeho Canoe Association, the event draws kayakers and canoeists from around the Capital Region and beyond, with participants hailing from as far away as Massachusetts.
Three different races occur during the course of the event: the canoe and kayaking derby, the “Anything That Floats” race, in which participants race down the creek in floats of their own making, and the Duck Derby race, during which hundreds of small, rubber ducks float down the creek to the Hudson river.
The course for all three starts along Coons Crossing Road which borders the towns of Stillwater and Halfmoon, and meanders for 4.5 miles before ending in Mechanicville.
While the derby is a decades-long tradition, this year was the first time that registration and sponsorship proceeds from the “Anything That Floats” race will benefit the Mechanicville Area Community Services Center said Jenna Cuilla, who is on the center’s board of directors. The registration fee was $20 per participant, while sponsorships could be purchased for $25.
“It’s really one of the only places people can get social services in Saratoga County,” Cuilla said. “It’s a great day. It’s a lot of fun.”
Cuilla added that the event would provide her organization with a large boost of visibility, something that can be challenging to lock down.
“Unless you use the center, you don’t really see what happens,” she said.
For the Duck Derby, members of the public purchase tickets that correspond to specific ducks with the hopes that their duck will cross the finish line first for a $1,000 prize, or last for a $200 prize. Proceeds from this race were to benefit the Mechanicville-Stillwater Chamber of Commerce.
“We sell a lot…probably around 600 ducks,” volunteers from the chamber of commerce said on Sunday afternoon right before the race started.
Couples, families with dogs, and friends gathered around fences, sat on ledges and leaned over bridges to wait for the kayak and canoe derby to start.
Various fire and police departments were on site to direct traffic, navigate road closures and work crowd control, while members of the Pleasantdown Fire Department were waiting in the creek for racers in case their boats tipped over.
“When are the boats going to come? I want to see the ducks, too, but they’re taking forever,” said 3-year-old Kenzie L., who was watching the race with her parents for the first time.
Derby categories included one-man short kayaks, women’s kayaks, one-man long kayaks and mixed men and women, among others.
Carabis said that the creek’s water levels were lower than usual. So was the number of participants in the whitewater derby. At the race’s inception, there would be more than 50 entrants. Over the years however, participation has dwindled; less than 30 people entered this year’s event.
He also mentioned that fewer canoes were in this year’s race than there have been in past years. As canoes have become more and more expensive, he says that boating enthusiasts have begun to rely more and more on kayaks, which can be bought for $200.
Once the derby racers started down the last bend in the creek, they didn’t stop. First place in one-man short kayaks for the second year in a row with a time of 45 minutes and 45 seconds this year was Jim Underwood of Queensbury, who has participated in the derby since 1978.
Underwood’s wife, Carol Fisher, who placed first in women’s kayaks, unseated the reigning champion, Stillwater Central School District Superintendent Patty Morris, who has been competing in the derby for nearly three decades.
However, Morris remained a crowd favorite.
“Come on Patty! Keep to the right,” spectators yelled, gripping the fence at the finish line as they watched her navigate the choppy waters right at the end of the race.
Though people will come out to watch the race anyway, braving cold temperatures, rain and even snow, Sunday’s race, which featured sunshine and warm weather, was a uniquely mild and pleasant day.
“This is probably the nicest race day I’ve ever seen,” Carabis said, between narrating events with a megaphone.