Sean Brothers and Matthew Kandski race down the Ottauquechee River on their boat “Cloud Nine” in last year’s Bridgewater Raft Race. – Photos the 2013 Raft Race
Standard File Photo
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
BRIDGEWATER — It took him 20 years, but Rob Capossela has finally designed a winning raft.
Capossela, 47, has won the Bridgewater Raft Race for four years in a row.
Next weekend, Capossela will compete against about 60 other people, paddling as fast as he can three miles down the Ottaquechee River for the 40th annual Bridgewater Raft Race. All oars and rafts will be homemade and rafts self-propelled.
Capossela has designed several rafts since he first started competing in 1990. Each one has gotten slightly smaller and faster.
His current model is a kayak-like structure that he balances on top of as he floats down the river.
“It’s the most fun day in Bridgewater through the year,” Capossela said.
The race has only gotten better since Capossela started.
“I used to get all tired out,” he said. “I was always so frustrated, everybody else was going faster and it was all because the design of the raft.”
Capossela designed his current raft four years ago. His oars are made of tubing and plastic. The raft race has become a beloved tradition, where hundreds of people crowd the side of the road, honk their horns and shout in support.
“It’s what we call Bridgewater’s annual rites to spring,” said Audie Bellimer, the master of ceremonies.
The tradition started in 1974, when two men, Jim “Hippy Jim” Cloninger and William “Bear” Massey built their own rafts and floated down the river, calling themselves “the Phantom Duck of the Rivers.”
It was the same name that a motorcyclist used when he held protest rides through the Mojave Desert, according to the Bridgewater website.
Every year, the race starts at what is now Capossela’s land with a loud noise that shakes the ground.
The shot of a .38-caliber pistol fired by Stan Dixon used to signify the beginning of the race, until 20 years ago, when Randy Saari started the race with a homemade cannon.
Kevin Cogswell took the tradition over in 2010 until he died unexpectedly. Now, the cannon is fired by Cogswell’s son Jared.
“It’s Bridgewater’s holiday,” said Jared’s mother Jamie Cogswell.
The event attracts second homeowners, locals and people from all over New England. In the past, people have floated down the river in a dragon, a living room scene and a rocket ship.
Marie Cole usually strives to be the last place finisher.
Cole, the head organizer of the event, even strapped a bucket to the back of her raft one year to slow her down.
“But we actually went faster,” Cole said.
Cole has been involved for 15 years.
The race starts west of the Long Trail Brewery and finishes at the Bridgewater Mill Mall. Winners finish in about 20 minutes while the losers finish in about an hour.
The raft race is a fundraiser for the Bridgewater FAST Squad, bringing in about $3,000 every year for the ambulatory service in Bridgewater.
The event will take place April 26 at noon. This year, there are about 22 different sponsors. Cash prizes will be awarded for first, second and third place finishers. There will be gift certificates to area restaurants and ski resorts and the hardware store, among a list of other prizes.
Capossela wouldn’t share his secrets to success, but he said you have to be strong and have to be able to paddle straight.
“If you can’t do that, you’re probably going to lose,” he said.
For Capossela the hardest part is the beginning of the race—when people are scrambling to get into their rafts and jump into the lead.
“You better be working out and you better be in real good shape,” he said.
Capossela grew up in Bridgewater. He participates in the raft race for the thrill of the competition.
“When you’re pulling away from everybody else and you know you’ve got it, it’s a great feeling,” he said. “It makes your whole summer and it makes your whole year.”