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Remembering the Labor Day Urbanna boat races

This 1964 photo shows a speeding hydroplane boat on Urbanna Creek at the annual Urbanna Labor Day Boat Races. (Courtesy of Anne Wheeley)

by Larry S. Chowning

Labor Day weekend is upon us and that reminds many longtime Middlesex County residents of the golden era of power boat races on Urbanna Creek.

This era lasted for 26 years (1940-1966) and involved both outboard engine and inboard engine races.

The Urbanna Labor Day Regatta boat races ended in 1966 after concerns were voiced that the creek was too narrow for the higher-speed boats. In fact, in that final year, the regatta was held only one day, Sunday, and outboard-powered hydroplanes were the only race boats allowed. 

Prior to 1966, outboard races were held on Sunday of Labor Day weekend, and on Monday the larger inboard-engine boats raced. In 1966 the American Power Boat Association ruled that Urbanna Creek was too narrow for the inboard powerboat races.

There was also the emergence of the Urbanna Oyster Festival, which seemed to be over-shadowing and taking the place of the annual Labor Day races. Volunteers were organizing and doing the work for both events, and there were simply not enough volunteers to stage two major events in Urbanna that were scheduled so close together.

In those days, the Urbanna Oyster Festival was held in October. Later it was moved to the first Friday and Saturday in November.

The boat races were started in 1940 by the Urbanna Boosters Club as a means of promoting the town economy. In the last year of the races they were sponsored by the newly-formed Urbanna Chamber of Commerce. The chamber was formed in May 1965 when the Boosters Club and Urbanna Merchants Association merged.

The Middlesex Lions Club also was a co-sponsor and the annual event was the last fanfare of summer before school started and summer-time folks returned home.

Boats came from all over Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania to participate in the annual boat races. The race course consisted of four laps in the creek, which totaled a mile and a quarter. Ten different classes of boats raced in the final year of 1966. 

Boat racing to return to Urbanna Creek
by Tom Chillemi

Home-built Cocktail Class race boats are an economical way to enjoy the thrill of racing. Above, Chris Riddick, who is forming a race club in Urbanna, negotiates a mark during a race.

A new fleet of the Cocktail Class Wooden Boat Racing Association (CCWBRA) is forming in Urbanna, said organizer Chris Riddick.

The group plans to build boats over the winter to be ready to race in CCWBRA’s spring season that includes a regatta on Urbanna Creek in May 2013.

These sleek boats measure about 8 feet in length and weigh between 75 and 95 pounds. There are two engine classes, 6 or 8 horsepower, with a top speed of about 18 and 26 miles per hour, respectively.

Weight is added to boats with lighter drivers so the boats weigh the same, which keeps them competitive. 

The boats travel around markers in 2-lap heat races that last about 2 minutes each. The top finishers transfer to the final championship round.

The last Urbanna Labor Day Regatta powerboat race was in 1966. The races were stopped because there were concerns the creek was too narrow for the high-speed boats.

Cocktail Class is inexpensive low-speed club racing where driver skill and boat set-up are more important than horsepower. Drivers kneel in the boat and lean toward the bow to keep the boat planing efficiently. A race video can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

The CCWBRA has roots on the Corrotoman River in Lancaster County and was formed in 2010 to encourage and organize family boatbuilding and racing in the Cocktail Class runabout. Already there are Cocktail Class races nationwide and in foreign countries.

The boat is a 1939 design by Charles MacGregor, originally published in “The Rudder Magazine” as an example of what could be done with a novel new material called “plywood.”

The CCWBRA has revived the old design and is rapidly building up the class as a forum for safe, fun, ultra-inexpensive racing.

Boats are powered by either 6-hp or 8-hp outboards, depending on how much the skipper weighs. Drivers who weigh less than 200 pounds are limited to a two-stroke 6-hp Johnson or Evinrude outboard, which are common and inexpensive, Riddick explained. Drivers over 200 pounds may use an 8-hp outboard of any make or vintage.

There are boat kits available and they can be constructed quickly even in a weekend, said Riddick, who is organizing a boatbuilding forum. The kits are available from Chesapeake Light Craft in Annapolis.

Riddick, of Urbanna, placed second in the 6-hp class of the 2012 National Championship of the CCWBRA on August 18. Twenty-three boats and 35 drivers participated in this year’s National Championship at Rock Hall, Md., with 18 drivers racing in the 6-hp class.

A new member of the CCWBRA, this was only Riddick’s second time in the 8-foot runabouts. Riddick, racing in the #83 “Sundowner,” owned by BreeAnn Edmonds, placed first in his preliminary heat and earned the right to race in the championship round for the 6-hp national title. Riddick squared off against five seasoned drivers in the final three races to capture second place honors by finishing with two seconds and a third in the three-race finals. 

Racing these little boats was “terrifically fun and exhilarating,” said Riddick. Drivers pilot the craft at relatively modest speeds while looking for any advantage as they negotiate turns. “It’s a blast, especially when you’re neck-and-neck with the competition,” he said.

Contact Riddick at (804) 832-4578 or for more information on the boatbuilding forum or racing.

Cocktail Class Championship 2011 from Gary Reich on Vimeo.

posted 08.29.2012

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