Regatta Will Roar Past Wheeling’s Heritage Port Labor Day Weekend

Photos Provided Jim Gardill, of Glen Dale, skids his Roman Candle raceboat through a high-speed turn at a past Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta. The regatta will be held again Labor Day weekend at Wheeling’s Heritage Port.

Vintage hydroplane raceboats — several capable of speeds in excess of 120 mph — will be roaring up and down the Ohio River in Wheeling again this Labor Day weekend.

Four dozen of the fast craft already have registered for the annual Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta presented by WesBanco. The event will be held Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31-Sept. 2, at Wheeling’s Heritage Port. There is no admission charge.

“We are looking at our best pre-registration of boats in many years,” remarked Debbie Joseph, regatta co-director. “We will very likely exceed 50 boats in the pits when we start on Saturday morning. The weekend will be exciting and full of action for adrenaline junkies of all ages.”

Proceeds from the event benefit the Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center in Wheeling, which serves the Ohio Valley from Parkersburg to Steubenville. During the regatta’s 12-year history, it has donated more than $70,000 to the center.

Though the raceboats can be viewed Friday at the port, the action begins Saturday. Exhibition runs by the hydroplanes will be held that day and Sunday. Opening ceremonies are set for 9:45 a.m., with the raceboats to run through the afternoon.

Hydroplanes in Wheeling differ from those on the American Power Boat Association racing circuit in important ways. All once were APBA-sanctioned racers, but they cannot compete today because they are not as safe as modern craft. While the APBA now mandates safety features such as driver seating in enclosed safety cells, the vintage boats are open-cockpit craft — with nothing securing the drivers inside. The Vintage & Historic Division of the APBA is experimenting with allowing vintage boats with safety cells this year, which is something that has not been done in the past. One boat with a safety cell will be in Wheeling, NM-711 Fantasy, owned by Mark Cravens of Bloomington, Indiana.

Engines in the old boats are high-horsepower powerplants. Some pump out 500 horsepower or more. Many will be familiar to Ohio Valley area residents who attended APBA regattas in New Martinsville and Steubenville in the past. Some of the hydroplanes that raced there will be seen in Wheeling.

Many of the boats registered for the Wheeling event have colorful, highly successful histories. At least eight of the hydroplanes won national championships during their racing careers. Five of the boats set world speed records, some at New Martinsville.

And hydroplane racing is a mixed-gender sport. Several of the boats in Wheeling will be driven by women. One “Lil Leprechaun,” was driven in competition by Ann Fitzgerald, the most successful female racer of all time.

Several of the raceboats are owned by Ohio Valley residents, including Dan and Debbie Joseph, of Wheeling, who founded the event and continue to manage it.

“The Wheeling/New Martinsville area is currently home to at least 13 vintage hydroplanes,” said regatta co-director Dan Joseph. “The Gardill, Kappel, Glasgow, Pattishall-Krupinski, Bridgeman and Joseph families have made Northern West Virginia a hotbed of vintage activity, with the A-711 Gemini owned by David Bridgeman, of New Martinsville, the latest addition to the fleet. We can almost have our own regatta.”

While the regatta focuses on loud, fast, beautiful raceboats, it will include other activities for those of all ages. Strolling through the pit area, closed while the boats are running, will be permitted during intermissions Saturday and Sunday. They are scheduled for noon through 1:30 p.m. and souvenir posters will be handed out to the first 100 fans through the pit gates each day.

A variety of children’s activities are planned — but one of the most appealing to many youngsters is meeting the raceboat drivers during the lunch break, getting their autographs and often, getting the chance to sit in the hydroplane cockpits. Many drivers encourage that. Other children’s activities will include appearances by “the balloon lady,” “the bubble guy,” a movie princess, face painting and games with prizes.

For those more interested in grown-up toys, the popular car show will be held on the street at the top of the Heritage Port steps from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Back this year is one of the most popular events at the regatta: the basket raffle. It features gift baskets including items appealing to children, men and women. Tickets can be purchased and deposited for drawings on each basket, with winners selected Sunday.

Another popular event is the free noontime concerts, sponsored by The Health Plan. Appearing this year will be “Mr. Fancy Pants.” The regatta will be kicked off both Saturday and Sunday with special performances. On Saturday, the United States, Canadian and Australian national anthems will be performed by David Gaudio, in recognition of the nationalities represented at the regatta. On Sunday morning, the Marshall University Fife and Drum Corps, dressed in colonial period uniforms, will perform “Amazing Grace” and the U.S. national anthem.

Major sponsors for this year’s regatta include WesBanco, Savage Crane and Construction, Merco Marine, Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration, The Health Plan, Wheeling Volkswagen-Subaru, Family Medical Supply and the Ohio County Commission. Other sponsors include the City of Wheeling, Philip High DDS, Lamar Outdoor Advertising, McClellan Sign Co., C.A. House Productions, Super Mail Inc., The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, the Green Tab, Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau and Wheeling Heritage.

Details on the regatta are available at WheelingVintageRegatta.com and on the Regatta’s Facebook page.

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