Theme canoes add element of zaniness to Great Dock Canoe Race

'Hee Haw High Prom Limo'  takes to the water during the 35th annual Great Dock Canoe Race at Crayton Cove in Naples on May 14, 2011. Greg Kahn/Staff

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"Hee Haw High Prom Limo" takes to the water during the 35th annual Great Dock Canoe Race at Crayton Cove in Naples on May 14, 2011. Greg Kahn/Staff

For most of the paddlers in the Great Dock Canoe Race, it’s all about speed. Those with the most rippling biceps, the best teamwork and most aerodynamic canoe have the inside track to win their respective categories of contestants — from the “next generation” teams pairing a teenager (12-17) with his parent, to the new “truly tenacious” category, for paddlers ages 65 and up. Originally begun in 1977 as a way for a new restaurant, the Dock at Crayton Cove, to celebrate its first year and let the wait staff blow off a little steam after a busy tourist season, the GDCR has mushroomed into a massive public party all over Naples Bay. It draws thousands of spectators and some serious paddlers. And, some not-so-serious paddlers, too.

There is a second, more colorful and perhaps less strenuous way to compete in the race, involving less upper body strength and more blue-sky brainstorming. Each year, the race has a theme, and the decorated theme-entry canoes provide a lot of the zany, offbeat vibe for which the canoe race has become known.

Once again this year, contestants will take to the water in their tricked-out craft, showcasing their interpretations for this year’s theme, “Animal House.” For a lighthearted competition, the theme category has some serious money attached, with a $1,000 grand prize for the best-dressed canoe.

If you go

Great Dock Canoe Race

When: Saturday, May 12

■ 11 a.m. Theme entry parade

■ 11:45 a.m. Tippycanoe VIP Sprint

■ 12:45 p.m. Ambitious Amateurs

■ 1:45 p.m. Practically Professionals

Cost: Free

Parking: Trolley service from off-site parking areas along Eighth Street South at Sixth and Eighth avenues South will be available from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., running every 15 minutes. Spectator boats on Naples Bay must stay within the designated area, and safe boating rules will be enforced.

Something else: Spectators are asked to avoid leaving any litter, including water balloons, in Naples Bay to protect the environment for native sea turtles, dolphins and manatees.

Information: www.GreatDockCanoeRace.com

You can be as creative as your imagination allows in coming up with a theme canoe for the Great Dock Canoe Race. There have been some wild interpretations of the themes over the years.

But no matter how over-the-top your idea is, you have to make sure that your floating float really does float, and doesn’t sink to the bottom.

“That’s the bottom line,” confirmed Marty Durham. She has an enviable record in the theme canoe competition — three entries, three first-place finishes. Along with her partners, Durham has pulled off the “three-peat,” winning each of the last three theme events.

“Last year, our biggest competition took on water, tipped over and sank,” said Durham. “That’s the only rule, that you have to finish the course.”

The course for the theme canoes is limited to a brief parade around the waters of Crayton Cove, immediately around the Dock. They are the leadoff for the festivities, making their splash at 11 a.m.

The serious races are over longer courses. The 700-yard “Tippycanoe VIP Sprint” features local notables and principals of organizations. The “Ambitious Amateurs” heat, plus the junior and senior categories mentioned above, kicks off an hour later, and runs the full three-mile course, all the way to the Dock’s sister restaurant, the Riverwalk at Tin City and back.

Finally, the Practically Professionals group, some of whom train year-round, runs the three miles.

Beyond staying afloat, what makes for a winning entry in the theme competition?

“I don’t know,” said Durham, but going into the process with the right attitude seems to go a long way. “We just go and try to have a good time. Where else can a bunch of adult women go act out, get together, have pizza and beer, and build something?”

Last year’s overall theme was Rednecks and Royalty. With her team of Nermin Clark, Victoria Meyers and Diane Peterson, Durham chose the Hee Haw High Prom Limo for their entry, turning their canoe into a red pickup truck, featuring Budweiser and a balloon arch. A visibly pregnant prom queen was apparently the guest of honor at a shotgun wedding, along with gaptoothed, overall-wearing good old boys.

“It’s always fun,” said Peterson. “The four of us, we tag team it, and it just flows well.”

Durham said they got the idea for brainstorming about putting together some kind of contraption for the race from serving as Odyssey of the Mind coaches at Seacrest School, where she works, and she and other team members were parents.

The only theme winner with more notches on the paddle than Durham and crew is Dave Carpenter, who, with various partners, has a total of 10 victories, going back to 1991, and as recent as 2007. That year, he and Bob Best won with “Puff the Magic Dragon,” with Wizards and Warlocks the overall theme.

Dave Carpenter, left, and Bob Best ride in their canoe 'Puff the Magic Dragon' during the boat parade before the races being at the 2007 Great Dock Canoe Race in Crayton Cove on Saturday. Lexey Swall/Staff

Dave Carpenter, left, and Bob Best ride in their canoe "Puff the Magic Dragon" during the boat parade before the races being at the 2007 Great Dock Canoe Race in Crayton Cove on Saturday. Lexey Swall/Staff

“The key to winning is to look at the canoe as just a vehicle for display,” he said, and not be bound to anything that resembles a boat. But he agreed with Durham, “at the end of the day, it has to float or you’re in trouble.”

Carpenter, who works for Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards, said he is too busy with the upcoming election, and does not expect to compete this year.

Every year, the race awards a $5,000 grant to a worthy organization. Given this year’s “Animal House” theme, it is fitting that the recipient is the Naples Zoo. And with “Animal House” as the theme, the possibilities are many, from togas and kegs to Noah’s Ark and any real or fanciful beast in the animal kingdom.

Event coordinator Caroline Martino said they are discouraging any dead horses, a reference fans of the classic movie will understand. They are also, she said, strongly discouraging water balloons, numbers of which have been flung from and at spectator boats over the years, because of environmental concerns.

As to what Durham and her group have planned in their attempt to garner a fourth straight trophy, threats, wheedling and tricks failed to elicit even a hint.

“We all pinkie swore,” said Marty Durham. “We did bloodletting sworn to secrecy we wouldn’t tell. We didn’t even let the waiters here when we were working on it.”

On Saturday at Crayton Cove, the wraps come off.

Want to join the race?

Race entry forms are available at www.GreatDockCanoeRace.com as well as at the Dock Restaurant, the Riverwalk at Tin City, Cambier and Fleischmann Parks, and the Chamber Visitors Center at 900 Fifth Ave. S. (Four Corners). Unless competing in the Next Generation class, entrants must be 18 years or older. The registration fee for each two-person team is $30, which includes a T-shirt for each competitor. A limited number of rental canoes are available by calling 239-404-6718.

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