OLD TOWN, Maine — When event chairman Scott Phillips was gearing up for last year’s Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta, he was impressed with the number of people who said they wanted to come race on stretches of the river that had become navigable after two dams were removed.
“It’s been a long time since it’s been over 100 competitors at the whitewater nationals,” he said at the time.
The event left that milestone in the dust, with 162 individuals signing up to race. And with each paddler allowed to compete in several different classes, that meant a total of nearly 350 “starts” were registred.
Now Phillips and the race committee are getting ready for the second year of the ambitious event, which not only serves as the official national whitewater championship of the American Canoe Association, but also will welcome paddlers of crafts that wouldn’t typically be found at the ACA championship event.
“It started out as being the Whitewater Open Canoe National Championships, but as soon as we got the bid last year, we decided to have kayaks, and then there were standup paddleboards and wildwater boats,” Phillips explained. “It just grew into all of these facets, so we call it a regatta. But it’s sanctioned by the American Canoe Association, so it’s still their national championship.”
Phillips said that after last year’s event, the ACA awarded the Penobscot Indian Nation — the official host — bids to host the event for the next two years. But that’s not all.
“It went so well that they actually honored us with the ACA ‘event of the year’ award,” Phillips said. “That was very [gratifying]. And it’s not just me. I’m the guy standing up front, but there are 10 or 12 people on our committee who work very hard at this.”
This year’s regatta will be run two weeks earlier than the 2015 edition, according to Phillips. The goal: To avoid the potential for low-water conditions and make the races a high-water success.
“We moved forward a little bit hoping we were going to have a little bit more water,” Phillips said. “The official practice day and opening ceremony is Wednesday, July 6, and from there we race July 7 through July 10.”
On most days, racers will tackle the downriver course, a 9½-mile challenge that will take paddlers from the starting line at Old Town’s Binette Park to Eddington Bend.
“We use mass starts, by class, so last year we had 10, 20 boats at a time go,” he said. “Down you go, and the first one to the line wins. It’s very fun.”
Shorter races — always a crowd favorite — will take over the Penobscot on Saturday.
“The sprint races are on Saturday, and to me, the sprint races are the funnest races,” Phillips said. “We basically just run the Great Works rapid in Bradley. It’s about a quarter mile and it’s on the strongest whitewater on the course. It’s Class III [rapids]. Again, as fast as you can go, but one boat at a time.”
The whole race takes just a few minutes, and spectators line the course to cheer their favorites.
“There’s a lot of fun to be had, not just for the paddlers, but also for the spectators,” Phillips said. “It’s a great location over there in Bradley. You can see the entire race. You can see someone start and finish without moving. It’s really, really exciting.”
Phillips said feedback from last year’s competitors was fantastic, and he expects many of them to return.
“There are people who go to the nationals every year for decades, and a lot of those people were saying, ‘This is the best nationals that we’ve had in a long time,’” Phillips said. “They liked the venue. It was right in town, so lodging was close.”
That’s not always the case, he said.
“Some places we go, like The Forks [in western Maine], you’re in the middle of nowhere,” Phillips said. “Camping out’s OK, but you don’t have all the activity that we had here in Old Town. This is a good venue.”