When Vin DePasquale announced this year’s Great Dock Canoe Race would be the last, he hoped he was wrong.
DePasquale, owner of The Dock restaurant in Crayton Cove, started the race four decades prior. But with the strenuous demands of organizing the event while running two local restaurants, DePasquale and his wife, Debbie, decided to step away after the 40th Great Dock Canoe Race this past May.
To his delight, the event will live on after all. DePasquale’s announcement that the race would end helped him find his successor – the Naples Junior Chamber.
The Junior Chamber, known as the “Jaycees”, have taken over the Great Dock Canoe Race. The organization for young professionals plans to keep most things status quo for the Naples institution, started in 1977 as a celebration for locals at the end of the winter tourist season.
“What better situation is there to have than a group like this with great energy and young minds and a business approach,” DePasquale said. “The makeup is so perfect for putting on an event the community has really grabbed ahold of and embraced over the years.”
The Jaycees started talking with race organizers in January. During the race in May, members of the Jaycees shadowed workers and volunteers at the canoe race to see how to run an event that features nearly 200 participants and almost 1,000 spectators stretched along Naples City Dock.
“When I heard the news that it was going to be the last Great Dock Canoe Race, immediately in my mind I thought, ‘No way,’” said Matthew Flores, president of the Junior Chamber. “If I can prevent that from happening, I’m going to work as hard as I can to make sure it stays alive. It’s a great Naples tradition.”
As a Naples native and 2004 graduate of Lely High School, Flores embraces local traditions. That’s why he and others reformed the Junior Chamber in 2014. The Jaycees had a history of helping with community projects dating back to the 1950s, Flores said, but disbanded about a decade ago.
“It’s a great way to show our commitment to Naples and show we’re a community organization,” Flores said of running the canoe race.
The Great Dock Canoe Race will continue to launch from Crayton Cove, in front of DePasquale’s restaurant, and go three miles up and down the Gordon River. The race also will remain on the second Saturday of May. The event also will raise money for a local charity.
“For the most part, everything will stay the same,” said William Diaz-Garcia, a member of the Jaycees’ board. “We can’t emphasize that enough. If we moved (the race), it wouldn’t be what it is. We want to replicate it to a ‘T.’”
As the all-time wins leader of the event, including the first champion in 1977, Pete Jenks wasn’t sure if the Great Dock Canoe Race would survive. He knew DePasquale couldn’t devote as much time to it anymore, and Jenks trusted the race founder was going to do what’s right for the event.
While the event has gained statewide renown over the years, Jenks hopes the canoers in Naples continue to embrace the Great Dock Canoe Race under new management.
“As long as there are locals that are training and racing, that’s what makes it interesting,” Jenks said. “We want local competition. It’s fun to go out there and race against people you know.”
Jenks is among a group of local staples who have become synonymous with the race, along with this year’s winner, Bill Ervin, and other longtime participants Frazier Gardella and Rod Price to name a few.
“A number of years ago we created (the “Next Generation”) to bring new energy to the race,” DePasquale said. “That was one of the thoughts in having the Jaycees come on. They can create another level or age of participants that will carry the success of (the race).”