Fyffe’s Tavern and the
Ramblin’ Raft Race
By Pete Lewnes | Originally published in Voices of Laurel Summer 2022
This summer will mark the 40th anniversary of the fifth and final Ramblin’ Raft Race in Washington, DC. This in no way was the America’s Cup.
In 1978, both Budweiser and WPGC radio teamed up and sponsored what was essentially an aquatic free-for-all: a race between homemade rafts on a one-mile course between the 14th Street and Memorial Bridges on the Potomac River. About 100,000 spectators were said to be in attendance along the banks of West Potomac Park that first year; and those who were there called it “Woodstock on the Water”—a beach party without a beach. Copious amounts of alcohol and illegal drugs were consumed by both participants and spectators alike.
Among dozens of makeshift flotillas from the area, Laurel’s very own Fyffe’s Tavern was part of the race, with pub regulars representing the city in “Fyffe’s Pride”—a vessel modified from a WWII raft that Harry Fyffe had brought home from the war. Other than a hangover the next day, how they fared is unknown; needless to say, they didn’t win. The raft was unceremoniously relegated to the tavern parking lot, where it sat outside in the elements for the next year. When the team dusted it off for the 1979 race, it promptly sunk in the Potomac.
But fortune favored Fyffe’s in 1980. While driving near Fort Meade, longtime Fyffe’s patron and race participant Joe Owens noticed something fall off the back of a transport truck. It was an inflatable military-grade raft, complete with floor board and overhead shelter. The driver, after learning about the Ramblin’ Raft Race, told Joe to keep it rather than reload it onto the truck. The all-new Fyffe’s Pride proved to be considerably faster in the water—in fact, faster than anyone else on the water that day in 1980—and was awarded the championship paddle from the American Rafting Association for its first place finish.
In a recent phone conversation with Joe, he said that Harry was extremely proud of this award and cherished it deeply. Sadly, Harry would pass away not long thereafter in 1981.
With an estimated attendance of less than 7,000—an all-time low—July 21, 1982 marked the final Ramblin’ Raft Race in the DC area. And less than a year later on May 1, 1983, Fyffe’s closed it’s doors for business after serving the Laurel community since 1950. It lives on in memory as one of our town’s most endearing neighborhood bars and general stores.
I would like to thank two of the surviving Fyffe’s Pride sailors—Mike Kirk and Joe Owens for their contributions, photos, and stories.
(Below): Members of the Fyffe’s Pride crew pose with their original raft in front of Fyffe’s Tavern at the corner of Sandy Spring Road and Montgomery Street in 1979. (Left to right): Joe Owens, "Herke," Walter Fyffe, Mike Kirk, Brian Fallon, Clint Smith, Brian Ray, Kenny Alcorn, Clint Smith's dad, Mike Smith, Jimmy Skinner, and Newt Alcorn.
(Left): The first place paddle awarded to Fyffe's Pride after winning the 1980 Ramblin' Raft Race.
(Above): Walter Fyffe, Phyllis Fyffe, and Joe Owens pose with the raft in 1982, the final year of the race and the tavern itself.
(Below): “Fyffe’s Pride” takes to the water in 1978 in this sequence of photos shared by Mike Kirk.
UPDATE: JANUARY 29, 2023
It's hard to believe that almost a year has passed since I wrote about Fyffe's Tavern and the Ramblin Raft Race. Being long overdue while caring for my wife, I want to take this time to thank Joe Owens for the loan of the following photographs that I never knew existed until after his viewing of the story. Thanks Joe!