Creative ideas float, win in Rock River’s raft race

By Joelle McGinnis

Thousands of people in Rockford spent their Fourth of July on the banks of the Rock River learning the old philosophy holds true that anything can be done with a little duck tape and super glue.

The WROK-WZOK “Anything That Floats” Rock River Raft Race is an annual attraction designed for fun as well as profit.

This year 129 homemade rafts carrying 705 participants floated down the 1.5 mile course and entertained an estimated crowd of 50,000 spectators.

Raft race chairwoman Jan Thorpe said the race is open to anyone 18 and older. Rafts must be homemade, man- or wind-powered and raft makers “cannot use an existing form of water craft,” she said.

An entrance fee of $5 per person on each raft is charged, and profits after prize money has been taken out are donated to Rockford’s Fourth of July Committee.

The number of entries was limited to 130 rafts this year and positions were determined by the order of acceptance, Thorpe said. Because rafts line up for the race on the river bank, the earlier contestants apply, the closer they will be to the starting line, she said. This year rafts were backed up for about a mile from the starting line.

Position is everything to some contestants. A person from the Rockford Crime Stoppers organization arrived at the radio station at 1 p.m. on the April 14, the day before entries were accepted, Thorpe said. “I came back from lunch and there he was with a barbeque and filet mignon, a bottle of champagne, blankets, lawn chairs and a TV. We had our disc jockey Riley O’Neal go out and do the show outside to keep him company.”

Dan Petritis remembered the night well almost three months later. “It got down to 26 degrees that night,” he said.

Petritis and fellow organization member Tammi Haverly, last year’s race winner, were able to secure spots one and two, he said. This year, in addition to last year’s winning two-man canoe, a four-man canoe was created and Crime Stoppers captured second and first place respectively.

Thorpe said the raft race tradition started 12 years ago as the idea of disc jockey John Walin. It had only 18 entrants and was done in heats.

“We found that to be totally boring,” she said. Now the raft entrants compete for creativity as well as speed.

“Some of the rafts have been absolutely nuts,” Thorpe said. “That’s why we keep the entrance fee so low.”

Prizes are awarded to the first three rafts to cross the finish line and to three rafts judged by raft race officials to be the most creative, she said.

Bob Zawislak and his four team members from Rochelle captured second place for creativity with their raft resembling a giant roll of Life Savers.

“To get everyone on the raft we had to have the Life Savers falling out of the package,” Zawislak said. The red, yellow, green, white and orange painted inner-tube Life Savers were held together with planks for the rowers to sit on.

“We were concerned it might roll,” he said. “But when we tested it, it turned out to be very stable. We were impressed.”

Thorpe said the creative ideas for rafts vary each year. “It’s fun to see the crazy rafts,” she said. “We’ve had a picnic at Chernobyl, Jaws, the Rockness sea monster and the Fruit of the Loom guys in the past.”

The Fruit of the Loom “guys” from the past race were back again this year except this time the women were dressed as giant red, yellow and green M&M’s on a raft resembling two giant plain and peanut M&M boxes.