With a pregnant belly, bare feet, black teeth, and a poofy, pink 1980’s throwback prom dress, Nermin Clark was the epitome a “redneck.”
But with the “Rednecks and Royalty” theme at the 35th annual Great Dock Canoe Race she was among thousands.
The race — actually three races and a canoe parade — was held between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday at Crayton Cove, the area around the Naples City Dock.
Primarily using items they dug out of the trash, Clark and her friends, Victoria Meyers and Marty Durham, transformed their canoe into a floating limousine, pulling a keg filled with “moonshine,” while heading to the “Hee Haw High Prom.”
Meyers, the chauffeur, blacked out her teeth and wore a white button-up shirt with beer can tops as buttons. Durham wore overalls with a can of chew tobacco in one pocket and a Budweiser with a straw in another.
They only spent $100 — on beer — and took home the $1,000 prize for best themed canoe for the third year in a row. The theme canoe parade opened up the day of canoe races.
“They did the most effort,” said Jerry Valdez, who has been judging the races since they began. “There was a lot of clever thinking that went into it.”
Vin DePasquale, the owner of the Dock Restaurant, founded the race in 1976 as an end-of-season celebration of the restaurant’s first year. This year, registration was $30 for each two-person team.
“What impressed me is the involvement of everybody,” DePasquale said. “Because of all the wonderful support we get, volunteers and contributions, we’re motivated to keep it going.”
The race is run in three heats. After the theme canoe parade, the first race is the “Tippycanoe VIP Sprint,” which features canoes paddled by business and community leaders in a madcap dash through a 700-yard course.
The sprint is followed by two traditional three-mile races. First the “Ambitious Amateurs,” who participate for fun, and finally the “Practically Professionals,” some of whom train year-round.
DePasquale was surprised with the turnout Saturday, saying it was the largest in years.
“We’ve come a long way in 35 years,” he said. “People enjoy it, so we’ll keep doing it. It’s such a great, fun event.”
Several racers donned Price William and Princess Kate wedding outfits, while others just caked on sunscreen and sat on the dock to watch the creativity float below.
Bruce and Judy Alassen attended for the fun of watching a canoe capsize. Learning from the crowd last year, they knew they needed to arrive early enough to scope out prime seating on the dock.
“It’s a fun, fun day,” Judy Alassen, 71, said as other spectators walked past, holding cups of beer, smelling of sunscreen and looking for their own place to sit. “It gets everyone out.”
The race is always meaningful for Patti and Gordan Decker, who met there 30 years ago.
That Saturday Gordan lost his friends in the maze of costumes and people. Asking around for them, he ran into Patti. Soon, the friends were forgotten and Patti’s straw hat marked their first conversation.
Patti Decker recalled attending the race with her two children and a friend’s daughter, whom she was baby sitting.
“I came to the race with three kids,” she said, “and I met the man of my dreams.”
Nine months later they married.
Now, the race is more than just a celebration, it’s an anniversary for the Deckers.
In addition to the prizes awarded to race and contest winners, a $5,000 grant is awarded to a worthy children’s charity each year. This year it is going go the First Book-Collier County.
“This is one event that’s just for the fun of it,” DePasquale said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding.” .