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Three Rivers Festival raft races keep friends together

Thursday, July 11, 2013 - 2:39 am

50 bucks and a weekend.

That's what Pat Delaney would tell his friends when the raft race rolled around each year. That's all the commitment it would take.

It's what he's telling them again this year, though Delaney and his friends all know better by now.

It's been 30 years since he and his best friend Rob Slusser stepped aboard their first homemade raft. They didn't know if it would even float atop the St. Joseph River. It was small. It was slow. But it's what started everything.

The high school friends haven't built a raft in more than 15 years, but with the race's historic reinstallation at this year's Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival, Delaney wasn't going to watch from the riverbank.

“They knew if was part of my DNA,” Delaney, 45, said. “There was no way I wasn't going to do it.”

Delaney grew up on Parnell Avenue, which runs by the race's old starting point at Johnny Appleseed Park. As a kid, he would walk down the road and watch it. His father built a raft one year, and from then on, Delaney knew it was something he wanted to do.

He and Slusser first entered in 1983. They were rising sophomores at Bishop Dwenger High School and had the whole summer before them. Preparing for the race broke up the monotony of summer. It gave them something to strive for.

“Every summer it was the raft,” Delaney said. “We got together all through college and even through our early days after college.”

Their first raft, the SS Hope She Makes It!, was very slow. Slusser sat in the front. Delaney sat in the back. The two have been a part of each version of the SS Hope She Makes It! thereafter.

They came back the next year with a bigger crew and a longer, 20 foot-long, canoe. It was all about upping their speed, striving toward the prize money.

Originally they went after speed prizes, but as speed awards gave way to creativity prizes, the guys switched priorities.

Building would sometimes take a month. With more than one engineer in the group, the process took a bit more time.

Delaney told his friends every year, “50 bucks and a weekend.” Neither element ever seemed to hold out.

Rob “Bert” Poinsatte was the parts guy. He would come across headlights for some of their old rafts.

“When you go down the river, you're bonded for life,” he said.

“Yeah, you share the same diseases,” Slusser added.

Eventually, the friends stopped racing in the early '90s. Family and work were growing responsibilities. They already had achieved much success, over the years winning at least six awards.

In the race's 15-year absence, some friends moved away. Two died. Trophies were relegated to basements and attics. But memories of the raft race surface every so often.

“You get us together and we all still tell many stories about the building parties and the trips to the lumber yard,” Delaney said. “We probably had as much fun putting together the raft as we did on the day of the race.”

Monday evening, the guys gathered at Delaney's home to start this year's boat building in earnest. Rain foiled their construction plans, but photo albums on the dining room table kept the race the focus of the night.

They still talk about their 68-foot-long dragon raft from 1992. The green beast's mouth would open and shut, spewing smoke (flour). Its tall neck would lower to sneak beneath bridges. They took first place for Most Creatively Outrageous.

A few years later, the dragon's head from the raft made it atop a trailer attached to the Slussers' wedding limo. When they went on their honeymoon, the head sat on their front lawn awaiting their return.

The head is long gone now, but talking about it brings a smile to the many faces gathered around Delaney's dining room table.

A few trophies even recently found their way out of the basement and into the dining room.

"I've mellowed, or succumbed, I should say," Liz Delaney, Pat's wife, said.

The guys and their wives poured over the old photo albums. Raft race photos fill many of the pages. In some, Pat Delaney is a kid himself. In others, his young son toddles his way into the frame.

“Those shorts,” Slusser said, laughing. “The hair.”

The men look a bit different now. Shorter hair with just a hint of gray at the temples. A bit more filled out around the middle.

Two of Pat Delaney's sons are entering the race with their own rafts this year. They have the youth, but not the experience, he reminds his 22-year-old son, Corey, who sits ahead the table.

Pat Delaney has offered bits of advice, but he's holding back on most of the secrets.

There's a healthy rivalry between father and son.

“We're well prepared for piracy,” Corey said.

Liz won't miss her husband taking to the river.

"It's one of those times I wish I was a helicopter pilot to watch you guys…"

"Drown?" suggested Corey.

As of Monday, the son's' two crafts were both half-way built while the SS Hope She Makes It! resembled a small lumber yard.

Pat has segments of an old raft buried in the garage if things get desperate. But he's sticking to his crew's motto.

"We have two weeks. We'll be fine."

"I have all the confidence in the boat, but not so much in the crew," Liz added.

"But the boat's not even built yet," Slusser said.

Liz laughed. "That just shows you where I am right now.”

Slusser joked he's been passing around $10 bills, trying to recruit new rowers so he can watch from dry land.

"What's that saying? Mutiny?”

"Don't worry. He'll be there," wife Karin Slusser said. "You can't let them down."