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Sink or swim? The Bridgewater Raft Race plunges ahead, April 27

Saturday, April 27 - BRIDGEWATER - Participants in this years raft race will plundge into the Ottaqueeche river this weekend for the  39th annual Bridgewater Raft Race, a fundraiser for the Bridgewater Fast Squad.

The squad is a group of volunteers who assist families after car accidents and similar disasters. It gets a minimal amount of money from the town, and the rest comes from donations and fundraisers.

"We don't have a specific goal," said Marie Cole, one of the race's organizers. "I like to see around $3,000, but we'll take whatever comes in."

The tradition began in April 1974, according to the event's website, when "Hippie Jim" Cloninger and William "Bear" Massey decided to honor the Phantom Duck of the Rivers, named after the Phantom Duck of the Desert from Mojave folklore.

The race started to get some attention when the rafters gave prizes to the winners. Over the years, the event has grown into a full day of activities, with prizes donated by area businesses. The organizers also charge a $5 entry fee and sell T-shirts.

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"It all goes to the Bridgewater Fast Squad," Cole said. "None of us who work it takes any money at all."

The race is open to everyone with a homemade raft and $5. Any participant under the age of 18 will need a waiver signed by a parent or guardian. Rules are minimal: Rafts must be homemade, manufactured hulls and oars are banned, and they must be self-propelled - homemade oars, poles, and the like. Life jackets and helmets are recommended. The event is held at the Capossala home, just west of the Long Trail Brewery and Bridgewater Corners Country Store. Pre-registration begins at 11 a.m. Numbers and positions depend entirely on luck.

"At noon, everybody goes to the river and jumps on a raft," Cole said. "The course runs about three miles, to the smoke stack at the Bridgewater Mill Mall. We usually have a winner in about 20 minutes."

First, second and third place winners receive a cash prize. Prizes are also awarded for Best Raft Name, Most Original Raft, the Most Challenged Raft, and other fun categories. The Bill Clingan Memorial Prize will also be awarded. The ceremony at the finish will be accompanied by live music.

For those not inclined to risk getting soaked in cold river water, Cole said there is plenty of room for spectators.

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"The race is pretty visible from Route 4," Cole said. "There are a couple of bridges. It's quite a lot of fun."

Cole said the number of participants has fluctuated over the years. The low point came in 1999, with only seven participants. But by 2010, the number had grown to 40 and recently the event has drawn a great deal of interest, once again.

All money raised goes to the Bridgewater Fast Squad, and donations are tax-deductible. For full information on the race, visit www.bridgewaterraftrace.com.