Memorial Day Boat Race chair readies for another year of races

Apr 14, 2018

It’s probably a safe bet that nobody in Rochester has been participating in the Memorial Day Boat Race longer than Art Benner.

“I started watching in 1950, and raced for the first time in 1954 when I was 12 years old,” Benner said. “I couldn’t wait any longer to get started.”

Benner, the chairman of the race since 1980, has won the race a handful of times and was awarded the Old Man on the River trophy, the award for the oldest participant.

Throughout his more than 60 years participating in the race, Benner said he’s seen a lot of changes.

The race was started in 1934, when Jim Hartley started it after building boats as part of a 4-H project. That first year there were only four boats participating.

“In 1961 we added a girls team, in 1996 there were 106 boats which was the biggest one,” he said. “As we got more boats, we split them into divisions. There are people who couldn’t keep up in the open division but could race amongst their peers.”

Benner noticed last year that participation was down, so this year he decided to put on a seminar at the fire station to encourage people to get involved.

“We’ve got another generation coming along,” he said.

Gary Stopka noted that the longer, lighter and narrower the boat is, the faster it goes.

“And you’ve got to practice, practice, practice,” he said.

Benner agreed that experience gives participants a leg up.

“You need good paddling skills,” he said. “You have to keep it out of the bushes.”

In past years, most of the boats were made out of plywood, but these days some choose to splurge on fiberglass boats with a foam core.

Stopka said that after years with a wooden boat, he got his fastest time ever with the foam and fiberglass one.

“I’ve raced for 44 consecutive years,” Stopka said. “I did four years in the Navy and made it back every year for the race.”

This is the kind of dedication the race breeds, and Stopka said he’s not done yet.

“I want to get to 50 [consecutive years],” he said. “And I want to win the Old Man River. So I have two goals left.”

Registration for the race will be May 11 and May 18 at the Senior Center. For more information, contact Benner at