Ocmulgee River raft race canceled in 1982 because it was too popular. Could it return?

Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series about local items of historic, noteworthy or unusual significance gleaned from nearly two centuries of Telegraph and Macon News archives.

For a few years in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it became one of Macon’s marquee events.

The Ocmulgee River raft race is proof perhaps of easy-going good times when floating paddling or racing down this region’s most hallowed waterway seemed like a blast.

It was, and for many still is.

How better to spend a Saturday than with a few thousand locals crammed on homemade boats, barges and rafts that in some cases were barely seaworthy? It was a wonder some of them even floated.

Some racers would partake in the beverages brewed by co-sponsor Budweiser.

Think Woodstock on a river, a free-spirited fleet made buoyant by inner tubes and milk cartons and any other spare parts that wouldn’t sink. One year, someone slapped a sheet of plywood atop an array of inflated tubes, an homage to the race’s title co-sponsor, a craft dubbed the U.S.S. Budtanic.

River revelers in the Ocmulgee River raft race in 1979. This picture, though the people in it were not named, made the front page of the Telegraph on May 13 that year. The photo’s caption read: “There wasn’t much racing going on, but a lot of folks were having a lot of fun.” Telegraph archives

A May 1979 front-page write-up in The Telegraph about the Ocmulgee River raft race mentioned some 800 “water craft on hand” over a course that stretched from River North off Arkwright Road to the Spring Street landing downtown:

The event had been billed as a raft race, but there was not much racing going on. There were a lot of people enjoying the ride, however. ... Johnny Smith of Macon took the simple route. He and his wife and six of their friends “got a good price” on some car inner tubes. ... The group had planned to tie themselves together with a rope to prevent anyone from getting lost, but the cord they brought was too short. Still, Smith said, the group wasn’t worried. They had adequate emergency provisions — eight life preservers and four cases of beer.

For four years, beginning in 1978, river revelers flocked to the race and its simplicities.

It had become a tradition by 1981. That year, 900 rafts were entered with a total of about 4,500 rafters on board.

The entry fees raised $20,000 for the Macon-Bibb County Beautification-Clean Community and Energy Commission. Carolyn Crayton, who was director at the time, praised the race’s “tremendous contribution.”

Then it was gone, done in by its popularity.

The race “grew to unmanageable proportions,” so the organizer canceled it in 1982.

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Participants raise an impromptu toast in what proved to be the final incarnation of the Ocmulgee River raft race in May 1981. Telegraph archives

A year or so earlier, the Ramblin’ Raft Race on the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta had ceased its annual Memorial Day weekend run and that sent a wave of entrants to Macon’s race.

Also, many participants here weren’t paying to enter. They’d just show up, plop in the river and float along on renegade rafts.

But the main reason the Macon race was ended was likely concern over safety.

The cancellation was said to be, as The Telegraph put it, “a preventative step aimed at avoiding a potentially explosive situation.”

An editorial in the paper noted that while “the race caused no serious injuries or fatalities. ... But the sponsors had a moral and financial liability to the community.”

Kathleen O’Neal of Macon was in high school at Mount de Sales Academy in spring 1979 when she and her friends, Leslie Prescott, left, and Mary Dombrowski, built a raft for the annual Ocmulgee River race using cartons from syrup containers the school used for its soft-drink fountain. Contributed photo

In recent years, races like the one on the Ocmulgee have been revived in locales like Dublin, where floaters bob on the Oconee River.

The Telegraph this week asked Kathleen O’Neal, of Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions in Macon, which rents canoes and kayaks, if the race here could make a comeback, what with the popularity of the river walk and Amerson River Park. That is, with the right sponsors and organizers — and, um, enough emergency provisions.

“Would we want to do another one? Possibly,” O’Neal said. “I would think it’s a great idea.”

As a high-schooler at Mount de Sales Academy in the late 1970s, O’Neal fashioned rafts for two of the races using milk cartons for flotation one year and containers that had held soft-drink syrup the next.

The scene on race day was “wall-to-wall boats,” she recalled. “It was loads of fun and it was eye-opening for an 18-year-old even though the drinking age was 18. ... People participated because you couldn’t get to that river easily, and here was a chance to get to that river.”