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The Healdsburg Water Carnival & Wine Barrel Racing on the Russian River

Healdsburg Water Carnival Barrel Races Women Imagine straddling a tipping and turning wine barrel in the middle of the Russian River, trying not to fall off while propelling yourself forward and around a buoy with a canoe paddle. Get the picture? It's not easy to do.

"Just wear a bathing suit and expect to get wet," says Jason Wildman, a Sonoma County Regional Parks maintenance worker who engineered the barrels to float. "Even when people sit on the barrels properly, they still get wet."

The 2017 Healdsburg Water Carnival, the splashiest event of Sonoma County's summer season, returns to Veterans Memorial Beach from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 15, with its hilarious and thrilling wine barrel races and other family-friendly fun in the sun.

Barrel Racing: Then & Now

Healdsburg wine barrel races historic photo The Water Carnival debuted in 2011 and is modeled after popular Russian River water pageants of the early 20th century. Then, as now, the ingredients for a successful event included music, dancing, parades, floats, whimsical decorations, plenty of good food and drink—and, of course, lots of fun and games in the water.

Old photographs show wine barrel races were a main attraction years ago, and the vintage images served as inspiration for the modern-day Carnival. But getting the barrels to function properly took a bit of engineering.

How to Make a Wine Barrel Float

Healdsburg Water Carnival Barrel Races Boys"Getting them to balance but not tip over, that was the problem," Wildman recalls. "We tried everything, and everybody gave input: 'Why don't we try keels? Why don't we try this or try that?' One thing that kind of worked was to partially fill the barrel with sand. That gave enough heavy weight to keep the barrel from rolling. But you needed a lot of sand in each barrel, and if you tilted back and forth the sand would move, so you might get the front of the barrel sticking straight up out of the water."

Wildman's idea, which ultimately worked, was to lay the barrels on edge, drill a hole, and fill the inside with enough cement to keep it steady in the water but still floating.

Healdsburg Water Carnival Barrel Races Lineup"The question," Wildman said, "was how much cement to put in the barrel? We started with 150 pounds, and kept adding a little more and a little more until we got to the magic number: 240 pounds. Cement is much heavier than sand per square inch, so the weight in the barrel is further down. That makes it more stable."

There have been many more improvements along the way, such as grinding down the rough edges on the metal straps, finding the right material to seal cracks in the wood (expandable foam), and determining the best way to wrangle these heavy objects into the river (a forklift.)

Zoom Floom, Sandy the Swan & Pedal Boat Races

The Water Carnival is presented by Sonoma County Regional Parks and the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation in partnership with the city of Healdsburg. Proceeds benefit Regional Parks’ Russian River safety patrol.

Zoom Floom at Healdsbug Veterans Memorial Beach-001In addition to wine barrel races, the event features the "Zoom Floom," an inflatable slide that allows participants to whoosh down the beach and into the river; pedal boat races; rides on the Sandy the Swan float; kayak tours guided by Russian Riverkeeper representatives; children’s games, live music, local foods, community booths, and a rubber duck dash with prizes. 

The Healdsburg Water Carnival runs 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 15 at Veterans Memorial Beach, 13839 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg. Admission is free. All-day activity wristbands are $10 and include all the water activities, face painting, and more. Parking is $7 or free for Regional Parks members

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in August 2016 and has been updated to reflect the details of the 2017 Water Carnival.

About the Author

Suzie Rodriguez is a Sonoma-based writer, editor, lifelong outdoors enthusiast and past president of Bay Area Travel Writers.

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