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Nanaimo family keeping up 55-year tradition of tub racing

Johnson family’s old racing tub being refurbished to enter this year’s great race
George Johnson stands next to a racing tub his son Paul raced in the 1980s and ’90s. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

A tradition within a tradition has been rekindled for the return of Nanaimo’s Great International World Championship Bathtub Race.

Tub 086, once piloted by George Johnson, who competed in the first race in 1967 and many thereafter, is being returned to ship shape by George and Margaret Johnson’s son-in-law Shawn Reid who plans to have it at the starting line when the canon fires to signal the start of the great race Sunday, July 24.

Reid said when he posted on social media about prepping the Johnson family tub, he received 65 responses from people who wanted to help get it race ready and 11 people who wanted to pilot it on race day. He said Craig Bunch is the owner of the escort boat and Barry Anderson will pilot the tub.

Two days before a test run in Departure Bay, the craft was being painted and its outboard motor had yet to be fully serviced after sitting for so long. George estimated the tub is 30 to 40 years old.

“They came begging for a tub,” he said. “That tub hasn’t moved in 15 years.”

Reid said George and son Paul Johnson each piloted the craft and won races in stock and modified classes.

“I think it was ‘92, George was the champion and Paul was in ‘93,” Reid said.

The tub, George said, was built in Port Alice and is based partly on an Australian design, but has a flat bottom instead of a tunnel hull. It is a technological leap from the one he ran across the strait to Vancouver in 1967.

“George was in the first race and I was watching, very pregnant,” said Margaret. “For a number of years … we took equipment to the other side to set up the finish line. We would go over early on the ferry, because we only went the one way in those years.”

Margaret served as vice-commodore with the Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society and as a volunteer with the organization for decades and has been involved with bathtub racing since the inaugural race. She recalls George completing that race in 10th place.

“I know he finished, but it took a long time,” she said.

George said he got into tubbing because it was a challenge and less expensive than racing sports cars.

“I was working at Hooker Chemical. Three of us decided to make a tub and go in the race,” George said.

He recalls the first race being a rough, cold crossing and only one member of the team brought a wet suit.

“They weren’t so keen on it the next year,” he said.

Margaret remembers their first tub as being “big and heavy.”

The early tubs were limited to six-horsepower motors – larger motors and modified and super-modified classes were added in later years and the technology of the tubs evolved, too, as racing teams figured out which designs and equipment configurations provided the best speed and seaworthiness.

“It became a family thing for us because George and Paul both raced. I was involved with organizing it and actually our eldest son, Michael, he raced a couple of years, way back,” Margaret said. “The whole family got involved with it.”

The tubs the Johnsons raced have practically become family heirlooms.

“There’s some still in our backyard,” Margaret said.

They still have the tub portion of the original boat and the tub and hull that Paul raced, along with hulls and other bits of tubs in a storage room.

There’s no shortage of tub racing memorabilia around the house. Old bathtub straw hats, posters, trophies, scrapbooks and other items, including Nanaimo Marine Festival coins stamped with Margaret’s image in honour of her role as former vice-commodore and her more than 50 years of volunteer work with the Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society. Nanaimo Marine Festival coins haven’t been minted since 2019.

“It’s a shame we had that break with the coins. It was the longest-running trade dollar in Canada,” Margaret said. “The first one was in 1969 and right through until two years ago. There’s not one this year. There just wasn’t time to organize it. It takes a while to get the design and the imprints and have it minted.”

Their daughter, Wendy Reid, is carrying on the family involvement as secretary with the bathtub society.

Margaret said she’s happy to see the race start up again after the two-year pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, although she acknowledges that some people who once participated have moved away or not kept up their connections with bathtub racing and the bathtub society.

“I think it’s good they’re coming back and hopefully we’ll get a good number of tubs out … the regulars have all come back, so it’s looking good,” she said.

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George Johnson stands next to the glass fibre tub that was part of the original racing tub he and three friends built and Johnson piloted in the first bathtub race from Nanaimo to Vancouver in 1967. Johnson was one of 47 tubbers, out of a starting field of 200, who managed to finish the race. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Shawn Reid works on the fuel line of the motor that will power the Johnson family racing tub he is refurbishing to run in the Great International World Championship Bathtub Race. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Shawn Reid works on the Johnson family racing tub to ready it for the 2022 Great International World Championship Bathtub Race. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Shawn Reid works on the Johnson family racing tub to ready it for the 2022 Great International World Championship Bathtub Race. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Margaret Johnson, former vice-commodore of the Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society, pores over one of the scrapbooks she has created for each year of the Great International World Championship Bathtub Race and Nanaimo Marine Festivals. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Margaret Johnson displays some of the Nanaimo Marine Festival coins that were stamped with her image in recognition of the more than 50 years she volunteered and served as vice-commodore with the Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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