2017-08-10 / Front Page

Powell bids farewell to four decades of foolishness

Fools’ Rules Regatta’s 40th race Saturday is last for longtime chief fool
BY RYAN GIBBS


Chris Powell will don his Fools’ Rules Regatta regalia and use his ever-present bullhorn for the last time this Saturday. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Chris Powell will don his Fools’ Rules Regatta regalia and use his ever-present bullhorn for the last time this Saturday. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN When Chris Powell took the reins as chief fool from founder Karl Smith, very few homes had a VCR player, the U.S. Supreme Court was celebrating two centuries of male exclusivity and the Chicago Cubs played no home games at night because Wrigley Field had no lights.

It was 1981 when Powell began overseeing the Fools’ Rules Regatta, a quirky tradition that celebrates its ruby anniversary Saturday. Sponsored by the Jamestown Yacht Club, Powell has been chief fool for nearly all those races.

The 40th annual Fools’ Rules Regatta begins at 9 a.m. at the East Ferry beach, with the first race shoving off at 11 a.m. As always, the event is free for everyone, whether sailing or spectating.

Powell’s swan song


This makeshift vessel was one of 28 boats to compete in the 2016 Fools’ Rules Regatta, which was Chris Powell’s penultimate race as chief fool. He will direct the races for the 37th and final time Saturday. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN This makeshift vessel was one of 28 boats to compete in the 2016 Fools’ Rules Regatta, which was Chris Powell’s penultimate race as chief fool. He will direct the races for the 37th and final time Saturday. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN The regatta challenges participants to construct seaworthy vessels from objects not traditionally used for boatbuilding. As examples, last summer featured “sailboats” built from picnic tables, garbage bags and air mattresses. Before that, dog houses and the balloon-powered cottage from the Disney movie “Up” have sailed (or sank) in the harbor.

While the 40-year milestone is Saturday’s highlight, this anniversary also celebrates Powell, who for the final time will be crowned chief fool.

“I’m ready to turn it over to someone else,” said Powell, a Hope Street resident and retired state biologist. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years.”

Powell said there have been a handful of interested successors, but he doesn’t plan on announcing the name until the races are completed. As chief fool, Pow- ell acts as chairman and referee. He fires the canon that commences construction, reminds teams of their time limit and elicits humorous commentary during the races. He typically can be found dressed in his trademark blue blazer, yachting cap and mismatched socks — armed with his ever-present bullhorn. He also directs an enforcement team.

“I have a committee that’s walking the beach to make sure there’s no infractions of the rules,” he said.

Powell was named chief fool in 1981. Although he moved to the island in the regatta’s maiden year, 1978, he wasn’t involved until he became its caretaker. Smith told Powell he just seemed like a good guy to run it.

“It was a blast,” Powell said about his first year. “Everybody was having a good time.”

New twist on an old idea

Smith conceived the Fools’ Rules Regatta to celebrate Jamestown’s tercentennial. He was inspired by a similar rowboat race in California. He pitched the idea to the local taxpayers’ group, which became the regatta’s inaugural sponsor. Smith inked a few off-the-wall rules to give the regatta a uniqueness from the West Coast race he witnessed. Among them:

Kicking, oaring, paddling, punting, ooching, sculling, pulling, pushing or cheating will not be tolerated.

No eye-catching beauties shall be used to distract and confuse competitors.

There shall be no hurling of missiles at competing crews.

No time allowance will be given for running aground, sinking or drifting to Newport, Block Island or Providence.

According to the rules, the committee retains the right to deploy the U.S. National Guard if things go awry.

Almost all of the rules Smith wrote in 1978 remain intact, with only a handful of additions in the ensuing 39 years. Coast Guard-approved life jackets became a requirement in 1980 and the unlimited class was introduced by Powell a year later.

Powell believes the regatta continues strong after all these years because of the comical, competitive and creative appeal of it.

“They have a good time whether they sink or they swim,” he said. “There’s very few events today where you can go for free, have a good time, get harassed by the chief fool and still laugh at yourself and enjoy it. The kids and the families just love it.”

From the ridiculous to the sublime

The regatta’s popularity has grown considerably since ’78, which featured 16 sailboats in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay. It now typically attracts 25-50 boats and about 500 chuckling onlookers.

For newcomers, teams have two hours to build boats from items not manufactured for mariners. No actual sails, masts or hulls are allowed. Although teams can design their boats beforehand and practice building them in their backyards, the vessels must be disassembled and re-built on the beach in full view of the committee. Boats compete in five classes, depending on the number of crew aboard.

Powell does not have a favorite from his 36-year reign, but he does recall several memorable designs, which have ranged from elaborate constructs to utilitarian vessels to peculiar contraptions.

“We’ve had them built out of hay bales, we had a Volkswagen one time and we’ve had big, massive boats built out of extension ladders and trash cans,” Powell recalled. “We had the Jamestown bridge one year. They actually blew it up at the end of the race. It’s remarkable the things people come up with.”

The late Bob Kinder, who helped Powell organize the regatta for several years, set sail in 1987 in a craft built from 100 empty blood bags. In 1989, Karen Knudsen entered a craft with a hull made from four 100-pound blocks of ice — which promptly melted in the 70-degree water.

“Every time you see one, you figure there’s no other invention they can come up with,” he said. “But every year, they come up with boats we’d never seen before, with material we’ve never thought about.”

A few special additions

Similar to other sailboat races, there are winners and losers. Teams compete for first, second and third place in each class. There also are three special awards, including the most ingenious design, named in honor of Smith, and the judges’ award, which is given to the team with the best theme. That award is named in honor of Frank Newman, a former president of the University of Rhode Island and a longtime foolish sailor. Finally, one team annually is recognized for featuring the worst example of naval architecture.

The 40th anniversary will be marked with special events, including a post-race concert from Soulshot, a reggae band that has been playing in Jamaica and stateside since 2003. There also will be giveaways and commemorative T-shirts designed by cartoonist Will Wilson, who pens the “Wallace the Brave” comic in The Jamestown Press. Although shirts have been designed and sold since 1985, this will be the first time they have been printed in full color.

Although he’s stepping down as chief fool, Powell wants to remain active with the regatta, albeit in a reduced capacity. He also plans to compile a book about the regatta from his extensive collection of photographs.

“I’ll miss the feedback,” he said. “It makes you feel good when you put effort into doing something that people just love.”

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