Wacky good times at Portland’s Wild Turkey Regatta

What kind of regatta combines rubber duckies, one-design fiberglass crafts, a stand-up paddleboard, and a gaff-rigged wooden boat? The Wild Turkey Regatta, of course. The Willamette Sailing Club, organizers of this wacky annual event, aim for a day on the water that “puts an emphasis on fun and ridiculousness.” And for about 20 years, the Wild Turkey Regatta has given Portland boaters the opportunity to cut loose.

Set on a wide section of the Willamette River near downtown Portland, the club has promoted small-boat sailing for nearly six decades, primarily through one-design dinghy racing. That tradition is upended during the Turkey Regatta, held each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and consisting of a series of races (if you can call them that) of a decidedly non-traditional nature. For this “race,” club members are encouraged to compete using any type of non-motorized boat, including non-racy craft.

Some years, the motely fleet makes the 1,600-foot race around one-acre Toe Island. Sailors making the shortest course must be mindful of the shoals at either end. Other years have featured a backwards race, or one in which contestants trace a circuitous route to round the marks. And sometimes the regatta consists of one single event, the rubber ducky round-up. In this beloved hallmark of the regatta, organizers in a committee boat strew duckies, fruit and vegetables on the water, which eager participants scoop up by means fair and foul.

Sailors in this year’s race were greeted with a knot of current and light winds, but glorious sunshine, and a temperature of 50 degrees. Spirits were high. The 2017 fleet consisted of more than a dozen boats, including a Thistle, Flying Juniors, a Sage 17, an O’Day Daysailer, a Vivier Ebihen, and a couple of Lasers. As is customary, participants ignored virtually every rule of racing, save the rule of competition.

This was especially notable during the roundup, as each competitor vied to retrieve the most duckies (along with oranges, pumpkins, and watermelons.) Loud whooping could be heard across the water as boats careened in multiple directions, shoved competitors away from prized ducks, and net-wielding sailors leaned precariously from shrouds to scoop spoils from the river. Several boats were boarded by competing teams, who “liberated” prizes while underway. No points were deducted for being over early, no protests lodged after collisions (and there were several), and no sad faces were to be seen after the committee boat tossed out the last ducky of the day.

Back on the dock, a turkey was sizzling in the deep fryer, the barbeque was  smoking, and picnic tables held an array of tasty treats. It was the last race of the year, and people were feeling happy — whether they had collected one ducky, or a whole flock.

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