Fierce rivalry keeps George Raft Race competitors afloat

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Above: Bob Knapp with wife Wendy Davis.

Photo by Debbie Harger
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Above: Richard Sturgill, l., with teammate John Werdal.

Photo by Brandy Kiger-Shreve

By Steve Guntli

The drama surrounding this year’s Prestigious George Raft Race will be taken to a new level, as two long-time Blaine residents square off for the coveted trophy.

Bob Knapp, owner of Catnap Canvas, and Captain Richard Sturgill of Drayton Harbor Maritime are fueling the flames of rivalry for this year’s event. The two have raced each other every year since the race began, and each has won the trophy twice.

“We’re determined, as always, that we’re going to win, and we won’t stop until one of us is dead,” Sturgill said.

Sturgill and Knapp were two of the founding members of what’s now known as Drayton Harbor Days. Drayton Harbor Maritime started the festival in the late ’90s as a charity swim to raise money for the Drayton Harbor boathouse. The boathouse was fully funded within five years, but the festival took on a life of its own. In 2001, Knapp introduced the Prestigious George Raft Race to the festivities, and it has become a Drayton Harbor Days staple.

The rules of the race are simple: teams are tasked with building a boat out of junk material and seeing how far they can float through Drayton Harbor. Participants have to ride on top of the rafts, not in them, and no materials can be purchased. Common materials include driftwood, Styrofoam, old doors and scrap lumber. Racers row their way through Drayton Harbor any way they can, and the first person to reach the finish line above water wins.

The race originated in England, where Knapp is originally from. George Raft was a Hollywood tough guy known for his gangster films in the ’30s and ’40s, but the race bears his name not for his nautical prowess, but because of British rhyming slang: “George Raft” is slang for “having a laugh,” meaning the race is meant to be all in good fun, according to Knapp.

“It started as a pub challenge, as all games from England do,” he said. “Here we have a great community spirit, and we’ve really seen it grow over the years.”

The winner of the race earns bragging rights and the race trophy, which they hold on to until the next year’s race.

Sturgill’s team, Salishan Black Bear, consists of about five other members of Drayton Harbor Maritime. Sturgill will be racing from the “Poo-Bah’s chair” on his team’s raft.

“I won’t be rowing, I’ll just be barking orders from the back,” he said.

Knapp hasn’t decided if he’s racing solo or as a team.

“It all depends on the boat,” he said. “If I can get it to float, I usually want two people on there. This year I’m thinking of something more streamlined, really give Richard a run for his money.”

The longtime friends and competitors didn’t shy away from talking some smack.

“Richard’s bitten off more than he can chew,” Knapp said.

“Bob knows he can’t win,” Sturgill responded. “Not with our accomplished team. Give it up.”

The race will be held Saturday, August 1 at 1 p.m. All participants are required to wear a flotation device and submit a “hold harmless” release form before the race. To register, visit draytonharbormaritime.org.

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