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Little boats make a big splash

by Lisa Lyon
| May 27, 2020 1:00 AM

In wake of Race the Joe cancellations, St. Maries begins a new watersport tradition

ST. MARIES — For a day, social distancing and masks were not on the minds of fathers, sons and close friends who live, work and study together.

It was a time of making new traditions when others were canceled. While the big jet boats were unable to race on the St. Joe River this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of campers replaced fishing lines with rooster tails in the inaugural run of the RC Boat Covid Classic on Sunday.

Disappointed to learn that the world championship “Race the Joe” jet boat races were canceled, some local race fans — mostly firefighter families — turned Memorial Day weekend into their new race tradition.

“We couldn’t let the kids miss out on this,” said Rick Clutter, boat race commissioner. “Our families really enjoy the river races and we had a lot of fun getting this together.”

With just two weeks to plan, the only rule was that each radio-controlled boat could not cost more than $100; everything else was fair play. Boats ranging in size from 9 to 15 inches lined up on race day, each with electric engines of varying sizes and accessories.

“Some people ordered online, some bought them in town,” said retired Northern Lakes Fire District spokesman Jim Lyon. “And some found theirs through more sneaky ways, like eBay.”

Race day approached with sunny skies after a rainy week. Race heats were set at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. with kids and adult classes. Driver agility was tested with a figure 8 course as well as a straight run across the river, around a buoy and back. A “sweep boat” (kayak) was on hand to capture any wayward crafts. Two drones observed the event from the sky.

“The spring runoff water required a greater level of technical driving skill, which none of us had,” joked Ken Capaul, RC Boat Covid Classic participant and Spokane Valley Fire battalion chief.

The first kids’ heat resulted in only one finisher, with the rest rescued by the safety kayak. The adult class was more contested, with allegations of unfairness as the race commissioner also had the undeniably fastest boat.

For the final heat, Clutter’s adult son, Max, raced the boat to quell the controversy.

The Race the Joe jet boat event usually brings racers from around the world to North Idaho. The 2020 RC Boat Covid Classic racers and fans were more local, comprising several owners of Cedar Grove, located at mile marker 7 on the St. Joe River.

Next year, when the big boats return, the little boats will be ready to perform the opening act for the St. Maries tradition.