Get yourself ready for more paddleboat hijinks

By Steve Estes

Strictly Drivel

Our annual paddleboat races are set to go in just under a month, Saturday, April 12. This is an event you’d pay to see if you had to, but since you don’t you really need to come out to Looe Key and watch.

Sponsored every year by the Big Pine and Lower Keys Rotary Club and the News-Barometer, with prizes offered up by local eateries and liquor stores, the Paddleboat Pursuit is just plain fun.

We give racers a very minimal amount of materials to build a wooden boat powered by paddle wheels, which are in turn powered by human muscle.

The creativity that goes into the design of these boats is amazing.

In the years of the event, and this will be the sixth, we have had stern wheelers, replica steam wheelers, side wheelers, front wheelers, catamarans, long boats, scows and canoes all powered by similar paddle arrangements.

The first two years, our friends down at All Keys Gas emerged victorious with a catamaran and the third year year, Jennifer at Big Pine Shipping took the crown in an elongated scow.

A dedicated duo riding the Mayfly took the fourth year crown with a stern wheeler and last year my younger brother brought home the bacon with an elongated scow.

The key to victory isn’t the boat. It’s the pilot. And that’s where the fun comes in.

The most successful pilots wait until after the race to imbibe a fresh beverage.

Those who don’t make for the best moments, however.

You’ll have to come out and watch to find out exactly what we mean.

Every year this race is held is a bittersweet event for me. Every year for the first three years my beloved friend Terry Miller had entered a boat in the contest. Terry isn’t with us any more, but if there is anywhere her spirit lives on, it is in this event.

She was the winner of the annual Sinker Award the first year, and her sponsored boat by Roadrunner Karaoke was the winner of that award in year three. The Sinker Award is given by a land-based judge to the boat that sinks with the most style. The boat named Mayfly was the winner between those two for crossing the finish line with the boat underwater, the pilot still pumping the paddlewheels when all the crowd could see was the tips of the paddles churning up white water.

It was a great effort and deserving of the Sinker.

Terry won the first year Sinker when she entered a canoe-shaped sidewheeler powered by foot pedals. The tipping point wasn’t quite where it should have been and as she rocked back and forth to power the paddlewheels, the boat began to rock as well.

After about 20 yards, the boat was rocking so badly that it began taking water over the gunwales. Loathe to let the moment pass, Terry stood up in the boat and rode it down into the water. But she entered sideways, keeping her feet planted firmly on the deck and just rolling over with the motion of the boat.

She saluted as she went down, still wearing her wide-brimmed sun hat, her Elton-John lookalike sunglasses and her ever-present high heels. She popped up out of the water and walked the boat ashore, coming out on the beach with the high heels still in place.

Now that was style.

Her boat, Roadrunner Karaoke, was the recipient of the Sinker another year with a different pilot. Terry was unable to pilot the boat due to her illness, but she was at the event cheering on her entry and downing Cosmopolitans.

Char Torti, better known to most of you as Charbaby, a local bartender, was the pilot chosen to operate the Roadrunner boat.

She was a rookie, and it showed.

To begin the race at that time, you had to either swim or carry your boat to the end of the dock at the old Parrotdise, now Kiki’s Sandbar, for a 100-yard sprint back to the beach.

Char decided to swim the boat out. She got it to the end of the dock, then tried to climb onto the dock using the boat as leverage.

These are small boats, made of one-and-a-half sheets of plywood, 16 feet of two-by-four lumber, six feet of one-inch dowel rod, 200 feet of duct tape and a pound of fasteners. Sometimes the multiple coats of paint, used for sealant purposes, and the wads of chewing gum serving the same purpose are heavier than the boat.

It tipped to her weight. Water ran over the gunwales and the boat went to the bottom. A fellow competitor helped her fish out the boat.

She climbed down the dock into the boat on her second attempt, and rested her behind on the stern. Again, these boats are light. Her slight weight sunk the stern and the boat went to the bottom again.

She had better luck the third time and actually advanced through the heat into the semi-finals, but she was a definite inductee into the Sinker Hall of Fame.

So we have a perennial contender waiting to be knocked off the throne this year, and a two-time Sinker winner begging someone to have more class and style while chasing bubbles to the bottom of the canal behind Looe Key Tiki Bar.

But that’s not the only good sinker we’ve had.

Last year we had a boat actually break apart during the race, with the paddles headed up canal and the boat headed down canal, and the pilot treading water between the two.

His name was Marshal Eldredge Jr. and he won our sinker award for those efforts.

The canal behind Looe Key Tiki forces us to put a 180-degree turn in the race course. Independent paddles, or a good rudder system, are a necessity to navigate the course. It also takes some bravado to whip those homemade boats around in a tight turn while your race mate is attempting the same maneuver.

Our daughter Mary always pilots the News-Barometer boat. She does a great job. But we gave her a boat with a rudder. She’s a bright, personable young woman, but the rudder system, forcing left to go right and right to go left, bamboozled her.

As she fought to make the turn, rocking the boat, it began to take on water over the stern. Before it could disappear completely under the waters of the canal, she stood up and performed an excellent forward swan dive off the pilot’s bench and swam quickly to shore.

Jellyfish, she said.

Come on out.

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