By MARCIA LANE
PALATKA – More than 100 sailboats are heading out of Palatka Saturday morning (May 6) for the 64th annual Mug Race on the St. Johns River.
Sailors will go 38 nautical miles to the Rudder Club in Jacksonville for what’s billed as the world’s longest river race. Chip Laibl who’s on the race committee from Palatka says conditions should be perfect for the race — a good wind and no Bill Rogers. Rogers, who has repeatedly won the race in his catamaran, won’t be sailing this year. Because Laibl’s on the committee he can’t take part in the race, but his son George and several friends from Palatka will be sailing. They’re at the University of Florida and went in together to buy a sailboat.
The race can trace its roots back to the early 1950s when Palatka sailors used to sail up (or down since the St. Johns flows north) to take part in the Florida Yacht Club’s St. Johns Regatta in Jacksonville. Since their boats were heavy they couldn’t trailer them but would sail back to Palatka. As the late Lillian Mackenzie used to say “naturally when you get sailors together, they want to race.” Her husband, Colin, plus Fount Rion Jr., Sam Simmons and Gene O’Connor came up with the idea of the first race as they sailed for their home dock.
O’ Connor, who still lives on the river in East Palatka, recalled that first race as a bit of a free for all. Sailors left out of Jacksonville taking off from wherever their boat was anchored when the signal sounded. If the wind left boats becalmed skippers were allowed to row with one oar, let a crew member jump overboard or a pole could be used. If the wind was against the boats, engines could be used at the bridges in Green Cove Springs and Palatka..
Winner of the first race was the fellow to get to the Palatka Marine and Yacht Service dock and take down the flag. The Mug Race name came from the beer stein they grabbed from inside and presented to the winner. That stein eventually was lost after a winner died and his widow kept it since it was the last trophy he’d won. So far no Palatka sailors has ever run the overall race.
These days the Rudder Club of Jacksonville oversees the event and there are a variety of categories. The race goes from Palatka to Jacksonville. You’ll still find people sitting on their docks along the St. Johns saluting the sailors — usually with a beverage — as they pass
Best place to see the take off from Palatka is, as always, the Memorial Bridge.