A family of mildly alarmed mallard ducks took cover early as the Cabrera family of four in a red, white and blue paddle boat slowly made their way under the Arsenal Street Bridge north toward the Nueva Street floodgates. A canoe with two women in matching striped shirts, each with her pet dog, came next. Then, moving faster, a solo paddler in a bright orange kayak.
Soon enough the normally placid and vessel-free waters of King William were alive once again with frolickers entering the annual Fourth of July King William Yacht Club Regatta. Marita Emmett, the official Yacht Club Commodore, said the event is “at least 30 years old,” but another year has passed without an audit of official club records, so uncertainty lingers still.
“Originally it was quite a formal organization, and we had membership, dues, meetings and by-laws,” said Commodore Emmett. “There are original members still around, but through the years we’ve loosened up a lot. We’ve gotten so we only do outings on the Fourth of July. It’s a tradition worth keeping alive.”
The Regatta, one of the calendar’s most underappreciated events, is a polite free-for-all of sorts, a competition that counts few Type A contestants and more than few founding members. The river fanfare ends with a family picnic, the potluck King William Summer Social, under the shade of mature hardwoods at Upper Mill Park.
The event might not attract huge crowds, compared to the evening’s fireworks and concert at Hemisfair Park, but do not doubt its import. Paddlers waited expectantly as the canoe bearing the name “Lloyd Doggett” moored at dockside awaited its crew. Soon enough, Congressman Lloyd Doggett and his wife, Libby, boarded with fellow crew member, Charles Emmett, the commodore’s son.
Spectators, joggers, cyclists and others waved and hollered from the river banks and the Johnson Street pedestrian bridge, which is the official finish line, cheering the costumed paddlers and their canoes and kayaks festooned in patriotic splendor.
‘If you find yourself drowning, please stand up.’
This year’s event was not without drama.
The two-person racing canoes were first up at the starting line to compete for the right to have their names engraved on the winner’s trophy. This year, a second trophy as awarded for the first time in the kayak category. A much larger flotilla of “leisure class” entries held back, , including the Doggett canoe, many tucked comfortably into the shade along the river’s eastern retaining wall. They would compete for the much-coveted Style Award.
The three leading canoes had barely gone 50 yards before two collided and capsized, sending four paddlers headlong into the murky waters. No one was injured, and as paddlers wrestled with water-logged canoes, an appropriate chorus of laughter and harmless insults flew from the better-dressed, still-dry leisure class flotilla.
In an inspiring example of sportsmanship not seen in competitions held in other parts of the city, the lead canoeists sacrificed an easy sprint to the finish line and turned around. The regatta commodore unilaterally declared a “do-over.”
The racing kayakers followed, but not before the Rivard Report kayak was whistled off the start line and ruled ineligible as a tandem kayak with two paddlers and one dog. This new race, we learned, was for soloists. A verbal protest went unheard as we skulked back to the ranks of the leisure class. Small consolation that we were the “least leisurely” in that category as we crossed under the Johnson Street bridge, if you know what I mean.
Who did win?
Bryce Milligan and Richard Contreras finished first in the canoe category. Michael Taylor will always be to say he won the inaugural kayak race. Tim and Lisa Cabrera and their two stylish daughters who pedaled the paddle boat, took the Style Award.
“Our first trophy, now retired and filled with names and dates of all the winners over the years, is on display at the Visitor Center a Villa Finale,” Commodore Emmett told the gathered crowd at the Summer Social as this year’s winners were acknowledged.
And then it was on to the lemonade, fried chicken and freshly baked cookies. There is always next year.