The annual raft race down the River Rhone from Lyon to Arles is one of the longest team raft races in the world. The rafts are rowed down the river by teams of four, who have created the rafts themselves from empty wine bottles. The rule that each team had to drink the wine from the bottles before using them to build the raft was waived in 2002, after the 2001 race was blighted by a number of competitors suffering from alcohol poisoning in Lyon. Some of the teams who enter the race still drink the wine beforehand; however, their rafts tend to sink well before the finish line.

The race begins on the third Saturday in September, when the teams assemble by the river to have all their bottles inspected by the judges. Each bottle must be an empty, corked wine bottle and be normal size (750ml). The teams are allowed to construct small shelters on their rafts, but these are entirely at the discretion of the teams and aren’t inspected. The shelters don’t have to be made from bottles. The oars that are used must be standard canoe oars.

At 11a.m. the Chief Judge pops the cork from a champagne bottle and the race begins. The teams construct their rafts from the bottles and lash them together with rope, string, raffia, and large elastic bands. The race doesn’t end until the last floating raft crosses the line in Arles, regardless of how many oarsmen are aboard at the time. If the raft hits an obstruction and some of the bottles are broken then the team can replace them at their own expense. It is entirely optional whether the contents are consumed by the team or not.

The distance between the two cities is approximately 280 kilometres along the Rhone. The record time for the winning team has declined rapidly since 2002 and now stands at 14 hours 34 minutes set by the Pride of Lyon team in 2013. Jacques Olivier was the captain of the craft that set this time: “Well it certainly helps a lot to steer the raft if you haven’t drunk 24 bottles of wine previously – you can see the right way and you can avoid the trees, banks, bridges, and other boats on the river. I entered a team in the 1998 race and I was the only one on the raft when we arrived at Arles – although I don’t really remember as I was still hungover. I never saw Charles, Bertrand, and Alec again. Someone said that Bertrand was found on the bank in Valence, but I don’t believe it; Alec might be in Montelimar living under an assumed name; as for Charles, who knows where he could be.”

Extract from the book – Sports the Olympics Forgot