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Grenell Island Regatta

Island life is all about boats, so why did it take Grenell Island Improvement Association 91 years to come up with the idea of having a regatta? Perhaps because Robin didn’t move to Grenell until 2000.

Robin Lucas is Grenell Island’s social committee. Yup, a committee of one. Of course, her husband and children might disagree with that statement. Last month, Robin raced home and said, “We have a regatta in one hour. Go! Go! Go!” The entire family was mobilized to get things ready for the event. Through the years, daughters Colby and Hadley have done their fair share of painting trophies. Robin’s husband, Dave, and son, Chase, are usually deployed in set up and tear down. Of course there have been others through the years who have lent a hand, officers of the GIIA (Grenell Island Improvement Association) and her neighbors, Chris and Bill Atkinson.

Robin is a whirlwind of ideas and having a regatta was the second idea she brought before the Grenell Island Improvement Association. (The first was that the island needed a social committee.) “I was awestruck by the number of canoes, kayaks, etc. that were turned upside down on the shore making homes for spiders and other critters.” It seemed some hadn’t been in the water for ages. Robin decided to change all that.

Robin organized the first regatta in 2003. The regatta is for any non-motorized vessel, in other words any thing you can sit on and paddle. Through the years, we’ve had variety of entries. There have been floats, sailboats, surfboards, in addition to a wide array of kayaks and canoes. But we also have our share of classic boats like St. Lawrence River skiffs, Adirondack guide boats and a Penn Yan rowing canoe. In July 2011, we had a paddleboard for the first time. The regattas proved so popular it was decided to have two regattas a year, one in July and one in August. There must be spiders and other critters on the island that hate Robin Lucas.


Grenell Island is perfect for a regatta. Not too big, not too small—just right for a nice paddle and plenty of docks and helpful people around if you run into trouble. Although someone usually volunteers to be in a safety boat and monitor the paddlers, just in case. It’s an event for kids and adults alike. Others prefer to stay home and wave to the throng of paddlers as they pass.


The awards ceremony afterwards is the highlight of the event. Usually held at the Lucas’ cottage—although in 2004 it was held on the Grenell Island Chapel lawn—Robin does a great job as master of ceremonies. Everyone wins something and there are lots of laughs.

Soon, those without something to paddle or those who felt more comfortable with their feet on terra firma were feeling a little left out. So in 2006 the walking regatta was started. After five years of racing around the island, Robin decided to add a Poker Run. Paddlers and walkers stop at five docks marked by colorful flags to get their cards. At the end, the best hand wins. That first year Lucia Kempton won with five aces. Someone take that girl to Vegas! The “walking” regatta was so popular that when there isn’t a poker run, there is a visual scavenger hunt for the walkers.

But there are some with the need for speed. My husband, Gary, falls in that category. In 2003, Gary first entered his first Grenell Island Regatta in our hundred-year-old St. Lawrence River Skiff and came home with a nice little trophy. The first of many. Gary will proudly tell anyone that he is undefeated in the St. Lawrence River skiff…when competing against anything you have to paddle that is. He did lose out to a sailboat one year that was on a different course, but against anyone else paddling, he’s undefeated. Not that there haven’t been some close calls.

His first serious threat to his crown came in August 2004 by the Ferraris in a double kayak. The husband-wife duo was perfectly in sync. Gary had his back to the direction he’s rowing, so he watched the Ferraris keep pace as he rowed counterclockwise around the island. Gary took our friends’ granddaughter, Sierra, with him as ballast and on the finally stretch when they were closing in she shouted out, “Is that all you got, old man?” That was all he needed and he poured it on.


Rarely were the races that close. Soon, Gary decided to retire and help Robin shore side. But the first year he said he wasn’t going to row, Lynn Dew protested. She said she’d been training all summer so she could beat Gary McElfresh at the regatta. The morning of the regatta, Gary dutifully put the skiff in the water and let it soak up so he could row. Two minutes into the race, Lynn was in tears. Lynn said that as soon as she saw how fast he pulled away, she stopped rowing, cried and then laughed at herself for thinking she might even have a chance at beating him.

In 2008, Dr. Bob DiGiacco unnerved Gary a little when he asked how many minutes it took him to row around the island. Anyone who knows Gary knows he’s a numbers guy. So for Gary not to know how many minutes it takes him to row around the island was a shock to everyone…especially Gary. Dr. Bob said he clocked himself at 17 minutes the day before. That sounded pretty fast to me and I wasn’t sure who would be the first to round the tip of Grenell and glide into Lucas’ dock. Gary won that year, but I think Gary has finally met someone as competitive as he is. Since 2008, they haven’t competed together. Either Gary was entered and Dr. Bob wasn’t or vice versa. Dr. Bob missed the July 2011 regatta as he was putting a new roof on his boathouse. There might be an interesting rematch at the August, 2011 regatta later this month. (I’ll keep you posted.) 

It’s hard to believe we’ve been having a regatta for nine years already. “It brings joy to me to see people having fun,” Robin says. On top of all the fun that the participants have either in the water or on land, the Grenell Island Regatta is a wonderful fundraiser for our Island Association. Over it’s 9-year history, Robin’s social committee of one and all her helpers have raised over $1000 for the Grenell Island Improvement Association. Racing, walking, or just having fun, the Grenell Island Regatta is the perfect way to spend an hour on a beautiful river day.

By Lynn McElfresh

Lynn often writes about her favorite Grenell Island and island life.  We have learned a great deal over the past two years from her musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends and taking nature walks.  To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.

Posted in: Places, People, Event
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Sue Smith
Comment by: Sue Smith ( )
Left at: 5:11 PM Monday, August 15, 2011
Robin - you haven't stopped since I met you years ago and know you'll still be on the river and shaking things up for a long time!
peter brooks
Comment by: peter brooks ( )
Left at: 2:07 AM Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Greatest island regatta ever was Axman Is. Thanks to the Breyers and Ritsons.
Robert Westcott
Comment by: Robert Westcott
Left at: 11:53 AM Thursday, October 9, 2014
So glad to see you've done such a nice job with the "Red Cottage". We have wonderful memories of many summer weeks spent there. Originally our family also owned Sound Wind before selling it to Bob and Jane Ranger. Your writing is a nice way for us to relive those days.
Lynn McElfresh
Comment by: Lynn McElfresh ( )
Left at: 2:02 PM Thursday, October 9, 2014
Always good to hear from former Grenellians. If you ever have stories or pictures from past yeas you would like to share, please contact me.