The Great American Duck Race is an event quite unlike any other, particular to Vinalhaven and with good reasons, all once good and noble but no longer.

Begun by Jerry and Carlene Michael in 1993, the event was intended to raise funds for the construction of a badly needed school playground and more recently to fund the Jerry Michael (Jerry passed away shortly after the Duck Race was conceived) Community Enrichment Fund.

Carlene and Jerry provided hundreds of little yellow plastic ducks, not unlike our bathtub companions, painted numbers sequentially on each, then had the kids who would eventually enjoy the playground “sell” the ducks for $5 each. For example I might choose duck #143, in which case my name or the name of the kid for whom I was making this wager would be logged next to that number. Unlike, and to distinguish it from, betting the horses, a cautionary and now clearly wasted precaution, only one person could bet on any one duck.

The ducks are sold from The Great American Duck Race Booth, which is reassembled each year around the Fourth, just outside Carlene’s Main Street Paper Store for several days preceding the race. And just before that assembly, a banner announcing the big event is stretched across the rushing waters from the Paper Store to the Harbor Gawker by intrepid volunteers in a precarious exercise not unlike the recent Wallenda walk across Niagara Falls.

In the beginning, the ducks were only distinguished from one another by the numbers painted on their undersides but as the years went by they began to acquire personalities, distinctions accomplished by the artful application of nicknames, wardrobes including hats, scarfs, jewelry; facial expressions, glasses, hairdos, beards and so forth, by the kids whose turns at the ticket booth offered time for such imaginative touches.

Now and then a curious appendage would appear, doubtless affixed by a prepubescent boy. Initially, most ducks were “bought” by grown-ups on behalf of their children or grandchildren. The timing of the Duck Race hinges on the tides and customarily involves seven or eight heats, each comprising a proportionate number of the total ducks sold, each released by the “dump meister” from one side of the Mill Stream Bridge about an hour after the tide has turned. By then the current will have picked up enough velocity to carry the competing fowl under the bridge and the hundred feet or so to the finish, an imaginary and wildly subjective line of sight extending from the three judges out from and perpendicular to the shore.

Those who bought ducks and their supporters gather along the granite wall that comprises the shoreline to respond to the exhortations of veteran emcee Jeff Aronson who cues the dump meister in each heat to “Dump the ducks!!” from the opposite side of the bridge after working the anticipatory crowd into a frenzy and then offering colorful commentary till the birds bob to the finish line.

In the water, meanwhile, are four or five volunteer duck retrievers in kayaks and me in a canoe with a youngster or two and the collective job of us all is to pick up, first the winners, then the hundreds of also-rans. The victors of each heat then compete in a final race and three modest cash prizes are awarded to their sponsors.

It all sounds like wholesome fun and certainly it was in the beginning but increasingly I fear that these kids and I pursue the elusive banner of wholesome activity amidst the inescapable stain of corruption and malfeasance.

Last year a duck—it was mine in fact, a duck I’d worked hard to train and to invest with the noble spirit of competition—was hacked and drowned at the finish line by an evil duck plucker who, unabashedly, still paddles his wretched mischief around the finish line compromising the race’s noble goals and confounding the efforts of worthy competitors.

This year was no different. It was again obvious to us all, particularly the disenchanted children in my canoe, that the winning ducks were again and again obscured from view and held under water by the same character whose clear mission it is to disrupt the course of events in favor of whomever has greased his palm.

Thus it was this year that a duck, out of shape, obviously ill equipped, apparently under the influence and not wearing a PFD, a duck belonging to a judge at the race no less, was declared the winner. I wonder, how do the organizers of this sham sleep at night? 

Phil Crossman lives and decries moral decay among duck pluckers on Vinalhaven, where he and his wife operate the Tidewater Motel.