The eight rafts looked like something out of Gilligan's Island. There was one fashioned out of bamboo; another out of an old mattress and duct tape. One was made of PVC pipe. But only a few of the rafts launched in the Wolf River Harbor from Mud Island Saturday morning would have gotten the castaways off the island.
The homemade boats were part of the First Annual River Raft Regatta put on by the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC). Each raft had to be made of recycled material and winners (for 1-2 person, 3-4 person, and 5-8 person rafts) got a cash prize. There were also prizes for the Titanic (quickest sinking), the Regatta Queen (the most aesthetic/unique), and the Ugly Duckling.
When Midtowner Bill Nelson tested his raft a few days before the race, he discovered a stability problem.
"I don't want to be in the Titanic class," he said. "I have to do some redesign work. The raft stayed together, but I think once I put an outrigger on it, it will be better."
He built his raft out of plastic containers and a neighbor's old wooden fence. The figurehead was a deer skull.
While building rafts from recycled parts might sound a little strange, the RDC wanted an interesting event that would bring people to the riverfront.
For his two-person raft, Michael Martin took wire mesh from a rabbit cage in his backyard, old detergent bottles, and some found objects.
"One day my fiancé spotted an old air mattress in the road. I think we're just trying to get one that floats."
By 8:45 a.m., about 60 people were clustered around the rafts. Some were already talking about what they're going to do differently next year. Family members and friends were milling around, taking pictures and asking questions.
The first heat of the regatta was something out of a Sealy commercial. Team Laughlin's raft used an old mattress, which they deftly paddled. Martin's team perched awkwardly on their air mattress and had trouble getting to the start line.
The gun went off, and team Laughlin whipped around the buoy in the center of the harbor and back in three minutes and 27 seconds. But Martin's team had just reached the midway point and seemed to be sinking. Putting their paddles aside, the two men lay flat on the deflating air mattress and kicked to the finish.
The third race pitted Nelson's raft against what has been referred to as "the party barge." A pontoon boat as big as the truck that hauled it in, the wood-and-plastic-barrel Pretti raft fit five comfortably under a blue tarp canopy.
Nelson's crew started to board, and they almost tipped. The raft seemed to be hooked on a nearby canoe. They untangled the boats, and Nelson, his son, his sister, his brother, his niece, and his nephew piled on.
"My wife didn't want any part of it," he said. "Originally, I wanted to put my 12-year-old son in it, but [participants] have to be 18 or older. We may get wet, but we'll laugh through it anyway."
The third race was more competitive than the others as the deer head battled the party barge. The party barge pulled ahead, beating the deer by a minute.
"Eight years ago, I started fishing the river during the summertime. It gets a bad rap about being dangerous," Nelson said. "If you wait until the water drops, it's okay. I love to fish out there from the first of June to the first of November. The river and I have a history, and this will be part of it."
I think we forget about our Mississippi River. You can't see it from much of Memphis or, now given all the building on the bluff, from much of downtown and it's either overlooked or seen as an obstacle on the way to West Memphis.
But it doesn't have to be that way. In an effort to get people to use the river more, the RDC now rents canoes and paddle boats at Mud Island, and admission is free.
"We thought [the Regatta] would be fun, family-friendly, and also give people a chance to interplay with the water," said Dorchelle Spence, RDC director of communications.
And even though it's as hot as Hades on the day of the race, it's cool to see so many people actually in or enjoying something on the river.