In a classic Vineyard summer of celebrity appearances, music festivals, art openings, and magical Illuminations, it is hard to imagine any event offering more enjoyment, good will, and inspiration than the 31st annual Oar & Paddle Festival that unfolded last Sunday morning on Sengekontacket Pond. The event draws as many as 120 kayakers, canoeists, and standing paddlers, who compete in categories according to age, gender, and experience. Every finisher earns a medal.
The event is run by Chick Stapleton, owner of Island Spirit Kayak in Oak Bluffs, and a passionate flag bearer of Friends of Sengekontacket, an organization dedicated to the long-term welfare of the six-mile long pond.
“The $50 entrant’s fee is a donation to our F.O.S. group,” Stapleton explained. “Every cent of that money is used to support our various projects to keep Sengenkontacket clean and healthy. It’s an ongoing effort. Among other things, we fund biweekly cleanups of the beaches and roadside of Sengekontacket during the summer.”
On this damp, overcast day, approximately 85 paddlers and dogs gathered at Little Bridge for the festival. Did we say “dogs”? Yes, we did. Canine participation in the race is encouraged, as long as they’re wearing life jackets. Among those jacketed dogs were Cannoli and Gilligan, two Jack Russells competing for their fourth time. According to their kayak paddlers, Tom and Linda Huth, “Cannoli sits in the front and barks at the geese while Gilligan lies quietly in the stern.”
After a period of mingling, the banter and kayak-design shoptalk were interrupted by Stapleton’s loudspeaker announcing the skippers’ meeting. The contestants gathered and were informed that due to choppy waters on the ocean side, “today’s race course would stay in the pond.” The racers would start between buoys placed even with Little Bridge, make a beeline for Sarson Island near Big Bridge (also known as Jaws Bridge), circle the island and head for home. Approximate distance: 2.7 miles.
After 40 minutes of suspense, the first returning contestant came into view … eventual overall winner Dana Gaines. Close behind Gaines was Liam Cosgrove. The two veterans have a friendly rivalry, and Gaines, who wasn’t sure how many times he’s won, graciously observed later that “next year Cosgrove will whup me.”
Eventually, first-place prizes would be presented in eight categories, and all finishers would be taking home their well-earned medals. Postrace smiles and good feelings abounded. Women’s winner and septuagenarian Karen English was happily surprised by her achievement, and emphasized that it was kayaking that has gotten her through the pandemic so far. The mother-son team of Kristen and Devin Araujo, who took second in the Wooden Double Division, “rely on each other’s strategic instincts,” and agree that “kayaking together is when we get along best.”
It was a good day also for Friends of Sengekontacket. Mike Krause, F.O.S. president, elaborated on the organization’s efforts. “We fund two interns each summer to work with the shellfish departments of Edgartown and Oak Bluffs,” he said. “We also provide backing for certain experimental projects, such as MV Shellfish Group, to develop oyster beds with naturally reproducing oysters to improve the health of the pond.”
The success of the festival can be traced to the sponsors and numerous volunteers who make it happen. At the core, though, is exuberant and generous Stapleton, whose No. 1 axiom is, “The Oar & Paddle Festival is not a race about results; it’s a race filled with accomplishments.” One of those accomplishments on Sunday was by the youngest solo kayaker who — with his kayaking father close by — mistakenly followed last year’s course, taking them under Jaws Bridge, down the choppy State Beach shoreline, and under Little Bridge to the finish. This year’s Gumption Award went to 8-year-old Kian Stapleton.
Another axiom: “For those who enter for fun, those paddling with friends, and those competing against personal scores, the festival is a win for all involved.” Dog or no dog.
One more: “Happy paddling!”