Published July 21. 2013 4:00AM
East Lyme - Paul Cushing knows how to use the rules to his advantage.
The raft race for Celebrate East Lyme required rafts to be entirely "human-powered," but Cushing figured a wind-surfing sail was fair game because someone had to man it.
Perhaps because he was racing against his brother-in-law, he made his raft a bit bigger than the required 4 feet by 8 feet. Cushing's raft, built with plywood, boxes covered in shrink wrap and duct tape, measured 24 feet by 8 feet, strong enough to hold the weight of nine people.
"Go big or go home," said Cushing, 53.
The Great Niantic Bay Raft Race was one event at the community festival that drew thousands of people to Main Street Saturday, to eat, shop, listen to music, dunk the first selectman or just enjoy the scenery and watch fireworks. More than 100 vendors lined Main Street.
The day began with a sandcastle competition at Hole in the Wall Beach in which contestants sculpted creations like a shark with shells for teeth, a mermaid with seaweed hair and eyelashes and the Titanic. A sand-sculpted sunbather took first place.
Stores and the police station offered some relief from the heat. It didn't stop people from shopping and eating.
"Good thing for the breeze," said Ron Michaud, who ate a gyro at about 4 p.m. "If it wasn't for the breeze, it would be nasty."
Mike McDowell, special events coordinator for East Lyme Parks and Recreation, said Yasso Frozen Yogurt was a draw this year, as the business gave away free frozen yogurts.
Ann Bunner, of Worcester, Mass., browsed at a tie dye vendor's booth and debated between two shirts.
"I usually spend plenty of money," she said of her visits to the annual event.
Paul McDermott, owner of Ace Tie Dye, said he made $1,200 in six hours the last time he attended a couple of years ago.
"My wife was with me that day. She couldn't believe it," he said.
Angelo Bettera, who co-owns La Trattoria with his son, brought enough sausage, onions and peppers for 500 orders.
"People get hungry. Right?" he said.
Further down Main Street, Cushing, owner of Pro Tek Auto, was ready for the Great Niantic Bay Raft Race. The defending champion with three gold-painted oars said it's satisfying to build a device with no practical purpose but to make memories.
He hoped he'd be able to joke with his friends and family later about how it all went. (He won, for the fourth year in a row.) His competitor, John Wilson, owns Sign Craft and is married to Cushing's sister, Julie Wilson. The two men also compete during the town's light parade.
Cushing said he followed the most important rule of the raft race.
"The unwritten rules are, you don't mess with the other dude's raft," he said. "… We have stolen several cases of beer from our competitors, but never messed with their actual raft."
Racers had to paddle 800 to 1,000 feet around a buoy and back, McDowell said.
Cushing didn't know the exact distance but said it seemed awfully far.
"I thrive on this," he said. "My body doesn't appreciate it, but I'm just a kid at heart and I'm blessed to be in an awesome community."