WHEELING - Organizer Debbie Joseph hardly can believe the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta already is marking its fifth year of filling the downtown area with the roar of hydroplane raceboats screaming past Heritage Port.
Joseph, who founded the regatta in 2006 with her husband, local dentist Dan Joseph, said the event continues to grow in popularity each year. This year's event is set for Labor Day weekend, Sept. 3-5, at the waterfront.
Driving hydroplane raceboats isn't an activity for the faint of heart - even "vintage" models can top 140 mph and they run with only two areas the size of postage stamps touching the water. But, Joseph said, anyone can be a spectator, and the regatta features days packed with food and entertainment for the whole family.
"The regatta remains a free event," she noted. "That's all brought to you by the generosity of our sponsors."
Joseph said this year WesBanco has enhanced its support of the regatta and is now the event's title sponsor. She said WesBanco was the first sponsor, and the company has generously supported the regatta each year since.
In 2009, Joseph said, the event drew 20,000-22,000 people, and even bigger numbers are expected this year. Forty vintage boats already have registered for the regatta, and she estimates that total will reach about 50 by the time the event kicks off with a gathering at Quaker Steak and Lube at the Highlands at 6 p.m. on Sept. 2.
The following day, Sept. 3, the boats will begin to dock at Heritage Port. Joseph said the pits will be open to the public all day, giving passersby an opportunity to check out the vintage crafts close-up and meet some of the drivers.
On Sept. 4, an opening ceremony at 9:45 a.m. will be followed by the first heats at 10 a.m. The drivers will break for lunch at noon, and return to the water from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The heat schedule is much the same on Sept. 5, though Joseph noted things likely will wrap up by 5 p.m.
The regatta is expanding its musical entertainment to feature two nights of acts this year, rather than just one, Joseph said. Friday evening, the mother-daughter duo, Loretta and Elli, will perform, followed by the bands New American Groove and Hot Pursuit. On Saturday, the Brandon Ray Collins Band, the Adrian Niles Band and the Fabulous Bender Boys will take the stage.
A vintage car cruise, organized by Wheeling Public Works Director Russell Jebbia and city Marketing Director Joelle Ennis, will be part of the weekend's festivities. The Ohio Valley Hillhoppers also will be putting on remote-controlled airplane shows during the event.
Each year proceeds from the regatta benefit the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center on National Road, which Joseph said "creates solutions that change lives for children and adults with disabilities and other special needs, and their families." To date, the event has raised $13,650 for the organization. Last year alone, organizers donated $5,250 to Easter Seals, easily the highest single-year total in the event's history. That's something Joseph is very proud of.
"That number grows every year, too," she said.
Joseph said the regatta is a great way to spend a day with the whole family. The weekend features plenty for the kids to do, including the popular Sea Quest Kids program, which returns for its third year. Sea Quest Kids is a traveling program found at boat shows nationwide that teaches children about boat safety, and even gives them the opportunity to build their own small craft. At last year's regatta, 100 children participated and got to take their boats for "maiden voyages" on the river in front of Heritage Port.
This year, the children and the boats they build will hit the river at 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 4-5.
Also expected to be on hand with kid-oriented activities and displays are the Children's Museum of the Ohio Valley, the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum, Smart Centre Market, the Toy and Plastic Brick Museum and the Castle Halloween Museum.
Jim Thompson, a Philadelphia-area man who was injured while driving his boat, "Black Magic," during last year's regatta, hopes to be able to make it back to the Friendly City this Labor Day weekend. He sustained a severe laceration on his back that required surgery to repair. He's also had some recent heart problems.
"He's trying to get the doctor's OK to come back to Wheeling, but he won't be running his boat," Joseph said, adding Thompson has retired from boat racing at the urging of his family. "He's had several surgeries throughout the past year. We're very pleased that he would even consider coming back."
That injury is the only one in the regatta's history thus far, and Joseph said safety is and always has been a top priority for the event.
Joseph said there still is room for more food and craft vendors, and she encourages anyone interested to visit www.wheelingvintageregatta.com to learn more.
In addition to WesBanco and its title sponsorship, Joseph said the event would not be possible each year without the generosity of many local individuals and businesses. Other sponsors for the event include the Northern Panhandle delegation of the West Virginia Legislature; Savage Crane and Construction; J.B. Chambers Memorial Foundation; Health Plan; Lowe's of Wheeling; Merco Marine; Comcast; city of Wheeling; Dr. Phil High; Wheeling Hospital; West Liberty University, College of Sciences; Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau; Ohio County Commission; Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration; Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp.; Wheeling Volkswagen-Subaru; United Electric of Wheeling; Lamar Outdoor Advertising; Kennedy Hardware; Lauttamus Communication; and Uncle Pete's Restaurant.