The man who made us float: A tribute to Larry Patrick

The founder of the Ramblin’ Raft Race died Sunday at age 66
Ramblin' Raft Race
Loving and Patrick

Courtesy of Larry Patrick

When I walked into Larry Patrick’s giant jumble of a house in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, back in early April, summer was already palpable: the summers of 1969 all the way through 1980. Images of those twelve summers, the best of Larry’s life, filled the walls of the house that had been in his family since the 1920s, on land settled back in the 18th century, long before anyone could have conceived of such a strange and wonderful thing as a raft race.

There was Larry on one wall, bearded and grinning, with 1979 Playboy Playmate Candy Loving. There he was on another beside Governor Jimmy Carter. And next to many of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers—“day labor,” as some referred to themselves—who helped bring his far-out idea to life. His house was a de facto museum dedicated to the Ramblin’ Raft Race—at one time the largest participatory sporting event in the world, according to the Guinness Book—which he created on the Chattahoochee River at the tail end of the 1960s, when he was ostensibly studying textile management at Georgia Tech.

Slide rules weren’t really Larry’s thing, and thanks to both luck and pluck, and many generous helpers, he got the raft race off the ground and floating. There were rafts made of beers cans, salvaged wood, inner tubes, car parts, and adolescent ingenuity. There were gunboats and coffin rafts and floating political ads. Many crashed and some sank as they tried to make it ten miles from Morgan Falls Dam to Paces Ferry. Incredibly, Patrick kept the litter to a minimum, organizing huge cleanups after the floating and paddling and—oh yes—a little drinking and loving was done.

The race ultimately brought nearly a half million people to the ’Hooch every third Saturday in May. Many racers hadn’t cared about, or even known about, the river before Patrick’s invention. Their dawning awareness was instrumental in protecting it. The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area was created soon after the race finally collapsed, under its own unwieldy weight, in 1980.

How, exactly, did it all start though? Sitting down in his Kings Mountain office and turning on my tape recorder, I asked Larry to tell me. Ha! He got a big smile, like the one Candy Loving inspired, and tried like hell to fill his lungs with enough air to share the story, any story. Pumped into his nose from a rotating cast of oxygen tanks by his side, the air came in terrible fits that left his face red and his mouth gasping. He got a few sentences out at a time:

“I’d just been fired from my library job. I had all this time on my hands, and I needed something to get excited about. In 1969, Tech only had about three girls.” He had to stop. “We used the raft race as a tool. We were getting the whole town wet. Taking them on an education tour.” He had to stop again. “The raft race consumed me.”

It was easier to simply show me photographs. So Larry got up with a lurch and let me take his chair. “It’s all there,” he gasped, pointing to a folder on his desktop. The photos made me feel, not for the first time, like I’d been born a little too late.

Larry had a degenerative lung condition, probably from smoking cigarettes for years, which didn’t stop him from taking visitors from Atlanta to his favorite restaurant in Kings Mountain (where he’d have wine against the well-meaning but futile protestations of his wonderful caretaker, Deborah), or for drives—with someone else at the wheel—to the senior center dedicated to his father, or to the family yarn factory run by his brother, Gilbert. It was lost on very few that Larry could only have come from a yarn family.

“Everybody came, even Ted Turner,” he told me, when he had the air. “He built his own raft. I remember him telling me, ‘Larry, wouldn’t it be nice if we had some Coney Island hot dogs?’ ‘Yeah, sure,’ I said. ‘Well, let’s get some!’ He sent a plane to New York to get the hot dogs.”

Nothing that good could last. Neither could Larry. He died this past Sunday, at 66, from the lung condition that had hospitalized him for the last few months. Shortly after my oral history of his raft race came out in June, he had invited me and my girlfriend to Kings Mountain to stay in his old house, play with his farm animals, join him for a drink in town. When his lungs let him, he told me with characteristic delight, not for the first time: “My grandmother wanted me to be a man of the cloth!”