In its heyday, it was said to be the largest outdoor event in the state, second only to the Indy 500.
The Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival's Raft Race is back on the schedule after a 15-year absence.
The race will go from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 20, though the bulk of the action will be earlier in the race, TRF Executive Director Jack Hammer said.
About 75 entries were signed up as of late last week, though Hammer is hoping the crowds on the riverbanks will vastly outnumber the racers. He said he wants to see the same enthusiasm and the energy of the raft races of the '70s and '80s.
And perhaps something that won't make a comeback?
“The worst thing about it was the length of the men's shorts,” Hammer said.
Dan Wire, known colloquially as Fort Wayne's “River Man,” never competed in the race, though he thinks of himself as one of its stewards. He lived in the middle of the course, with his home situated at the first break in the trees. It was a popular spot for people gather and watch.
“I would have 600 of my closest friends show upon the riverbank by the house,” Wire said.
The current interim executive director of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance remembers cleaning pieces of broken rafts out of the river for days after the race, much to his and his friends' benefit. They'd use the debris to fashion their own rafts to use the rest of the summer.
Nowadays, he's taking a more active role.
“I have been working with Three Rivers Festival for the last three years, always having our eye on the target trying to return the Raft Race,” he said. “We knew that the Raft Race was the ultimate draw.”
Bringing the race back wasn't an easy feat. A number of pieces needed to come together before rafts could again hit the water.
Money was a main concern. There was a need for a corporate sponsor or some type of corporate sponsor. Tied into that aspect were insurance costs.
High insurance costs made the raft race a tough event to sponsor, but with substantial financial backing from Bruce Dye of Hotel Fitness and Bill Bean of Hanning and Bean Enterprises, TRF was able to incorporate raft race insurance into its general insurance coverage without excessive financial burden.
Dye and Bean are also helping to provide large cash prizes.
A $14,000 incentive lays across the finish line for race participants. There will be two divisions, commercial and non-commercial/individual, each broken down into two categories: fastest and most creative. First place will earn $2,000, second will garner $1,000 and third will receive $500.
“There has never been that sort of money before behind the Raft Race,” Wire said.
As safety is a top priority, Hammer and Wire said, there will be a few new rules in place.
All participants must wear shoes and personal flotation devices at all times. Alcohol won't be allowed on the rafts.
“We're going to be extra vigilant this year,” Wire said. “We have a vision of what this race can be in the future. We want to set the perimeters so everybody knows what the boundaries are to operate within this year.”
Banned this year are Styrofoam coolers, which often break and litter the river.
“We're taking very serious the need to leave the river in a good, if not a better, condition than it started.”
Ensuring water quality for the well-being of the rafters was another aspect in the planning.
“Water quality has improved on a lot of different fronts,” Wire said.
The No. 1 pollutant is soil erosion, which gives the rivers their muddy look. Another threat to water quality is bacteria from wildlife fecal discharge and city sewage. Major rains increase the likelihood of water pollution.
“We know how to manage those numbers,” Wire said. “We're on top of it.”
Wire said the city monitors the water each week, and TRF will test the waters each day in the week leaving up to the race. If water quality isn't up to par, the race will be postponed.
“We've spent time, money, effort and dreams to make this comeback, but we all have a healthy dose of common sense,” Hammer said.
Another challenge was the very mechanical details, such as charting the course. With levees impeding sections of the old course, a new route was needed. This year's race will move from the St. Joseph River to the St. Marys River.
Boats will officially head off from Swinney East Park and finish at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge.
Wire said multiple shorelines have been cleared for spectator viewing.
“You get to see views and vistas of Fort Wayne that you've never seen before,” Hammer said.
Wire plans on going non-stop for about 24 hours, he said, but the time and effort is worth it.
“All of that, in my mind, is to grow this water asset in our community into an economic engine,” he said. “The untold story is the positive economic impact on the community.”