It’s when the first raft disintegrates; dumping its cargo of flamboyantly-costumed rowers unceremoniously into the tea-tinted water of the Chester River, that you know for sure this isn’t your grandmother’s tea party. The thronging crowd along the shoreline roars in support, cheering the homemade rafts as they smoke, wobble, paddle, perambulate, and yes, even fall apart, along the length of their route out from Wilmer Park, around two buoys, and back again to the soft mud of the shoreline. Shoes, wigs, and even a few rogue beer cans float on the river’s surface, while some rafts sink and others row to victory. All for the promise and bragging rights of a trophy proclaiming their status as “Fabulous Flotsam,” or to achieve the distinction of “Da Vinci,” “Van Gogh,” or the “Junior Cup,” Raft Race contenders vie for glory.
Greatness can be earned through spectacular failure as “the Flop” or through overall prowess as winners of the coveted (and elusive) “Tea Cup.” It’s the Raft Race- an annual event that truly reflects Chestertown’s longstanding history since the 18th century as a maritime refuge for eccentric, irreverent and fun-loving folk. It’s simply one of the best things, and also one of the oddest things, that we Chestertonians do.
Held on the Sunday of Tea Party weekend each year (Memorial Day weekend to you), the premise is simple: build a raft of non-nautical materials that can carry at least four people. No engines, no boat parts, and at least half of the competitors’ bodies must be above the water. A few other safety concerns are ticked off, and what you now have are blank canvases for artistic expression, engineering marvels, and personal quirks that seem more akin to Burning Man than the Chesapeake tidewater.
Rafts from the past have been built to look like full-sized giraffes with safari guides inside, the A-Team with a replica of their GMC Vendura Van (complete with mohawks and medallions), a giant butterfly, a pirate ship overtaken in a male ballerina mutiny, and those were just the ones that floated. Many more have succumbed to the Yoo-Hoo-colored waves of the Chester due to faulty construction, half-baked propulsion, or hubristic flights of awkward and unwieldy fancy. But in the end, everyone who enters the Raft Race wins, even if they were passed over for a trophy. It’s an event that’s about embracing the kids and adults that participate, supporting your local community, and letting your freak flag fly high and proud. It’s just enough to make a person patriotic.
This year’s Raft Race stands to be a banner year. Sponsored by the Chester River Association, the event takes place in Wilmer Park on Sunday, May 27th, at 2:30 PM. Pre-registration forms can be obtained from The Finishing Touch on High Street in Chestertown, Maryland, or click here for online registration. All are welcome to enter.