The Great International World Championship Bathtub Race and the Nanaimo Marine Festival have firmly woven themselves in to Nanaimo’s cultural fabric since 1967.
Former Nanaimo mayor Frank Ney used the race as a Centennial event for Nanaimo and it grabbed international attention. Through the 1970s and ’80s, tubbers came from as far as Australia and New Zealand to take part.
Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan, a former Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society commodore, recalls the international attention the race once drew.
“We had a huge international flavour,” Ruttan said. “I can remember one year, it was probably 1986 or ’87, when I was at the finish line in Vancouver and there were three Japanese television networks that came over to cover it.”
The Australians bowed out after a conflict over tub weight and horsepower specifications. The race course, changed in 1997 after demise of Vancouver’s Sea Festival, now starts and finishes in Nanaimo.
The race is still the culminating event of the Nanaimo Marine Festival and the premier event of international bathtub competitions, even if today’s competitors are primarily local.
With an average of about 45 tubs entering each year, interest in the sport remains stable, but could the sport be rejuvenated and once again attract competitors and attention from around the world?
Bill McGuire, Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society commodore, was involved with the sport since the first race and said bathtub racing is supposed to be fun and competitive, but it’s not a professional sport and the society is opposed to anything that would go against that basic principle.
“One thing that would do that, that we are dead against, is prize money,” McGuire said.
McGuire said the Australians wanted to win at any cost, prize money or not. Raising the prize stakes could also raise the cost of competing, which might drive people away from the sport.
Ruttan and McGuire suggest it might be time to turn to the public for views on which course bathtub racing should sail into the future.
“We’re wide open for suggestions and always have been. In fact, we’re wide open for members too, which you have to be in this day and age, that’s for sure,” McGuire said.
Fresh ideas or not, the competitive spirit is alive and well and as one generation of tubbers retires, new ones are taking their turns at the tiller.
Brayden Pedersen, 14, will be this year’s youngest tubber.
“It’s kind of an adventure thing and I want to beat last year’s youngest tubber Ashley Martin,” Pedersen said. “So far I’ve beaten Ashley in the circuit races.”
Martin, 16, advocates putting up a cash prize and returning the finish to Vancouver to re-energize the sport and draw international competitors.
“I loved having Aussies there. It was lots of fun with them being there,” Martin said.
Mathew Collins, 16, runs his second great race this year. He grew up watching his father Roy race and said there is a friendly, family environment around bathtub racing. Those are qualities he wants to maintain.
But all three say to really promote the sport and the great race, circuit bathtub races must be better organized and promoted.
Circuit races are held at the annual Oak Bay Tea Party and Departure Bay, but attendance by spectators and tubbers at those races varies drastically.
Oak Bay might have thousands of spectators already attending tea party events, but the race in Departure Bay might draw 50 or so spectators, simply because few people even know it is happening.
The number of competing tubbers at circuit races averages 12-15.
“It could become like a motocross event that’s quite big each weekend,” Collins said. “A lot more racers might come out if there’s a lot more public. A lot of racers like being seen by the public and if there’s no public, why come out?”
Collins said getting people to consistently commit to organizing and promoting race events is another challenge.
“A lot of people who say they’re doing it and then drop out at the last minute,” Collins said. “We need more people who are committed to doing it.”
Ruttan said current marine festival and race organizers need to recognize the importance of succession and there are several ambitious, aggressive and successful groups of younger people he thinks would welcome the opportunity and challenge.
“We need a larger group of people with renewed vigor and enthusiasm,” Ruttan said. “If we had more useful people who could think of these ideas and run with them, then I think I could see change coming and it’s addressed by succession.”