River rats test homespun engineering in the Tuck Derby

It is not by swiftness, nor by strength and valor, that races are gained and battles won, but by sheer luck, tenacity and about $8 worth of duct tape.

So sayeth we concerning the winners, Drew Cook and Taylor Bennett, who floated to first place in the annual Tuck River Derby atop their homemade raft, constructed out of PVC sewer pipes and a few empty drywall buckets, and lots and lots of duct tape.

Cook, an advertising representative at The Smoky Mountain News, tried to chalk his win up to stellar kayaking skills and river know-how, but the truth was simpler and quite evident to the crowd of 40 or so gathered to watch the race.

Cook’s and Bennett’s raft held together — unlike the Tucktanic, which lived up to its name and sank shortly after rounding the first river bend. It didn’t get stuck on a rock like the elaborately constructed Bucket Brigade (built in Florida and transported all the way to Dillsboro for the race).

In all, 15 teams entered homemade rafts made of recycled materials, in the second-annual derby held on July 4 on the shore of the Tuck in Dillsboro.

The furthest afield contestant, Pete Matejka of Mount Dora, Fla., was urged to enter by his siter-in-law, who has a summer home here.

“All the way up, people were taking pictures, and honking at us,” Matejaka said of the drive to WNC with his raft creation.

But early crowd musings that his slickly built raft (it even had a rudder and steering wheel) would win didn’t bear fruit after it stuck fast on a rock at the starting line. Bystanders finally pushed the raft into the current, but by then Cook and Bennett were well down the Tuckasegee River on their way to victory.

Brant Barnes, who helped organize the race, said the point was mainly to have fun. He floated down the river in a cardboard raft of his own creation. But, Barnes said, the hope is also to help the tourism-dependent town link itself to the river that runs through it.

“We’ve lost the train, so we’re trying to connect ourselves to the river,” Barnes said. “And it’s just been a hoot.”

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