It’s the toughest test of tubbing anywhere, which is why it’s known as the Great Race.
The Great International World Championship Bathtub Race takes place Sunday (July 24) from Nanaimo harbour to Departure Bay Beach.
Last year’s event was one of the most challenging ever. With the choppiest race-day seas in a decade, only one-third of the tubbers managed to stay afloat.
“We didn’t have all that many finish,” said Bill McGuire, Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society commodore. “A lot of people say, ‘I guess it’ll mean you’ve got fewer tubs this year.’ Actually, it’s always worked out in the past that if we have a real tough year, the following year we get more tubs because people say, ‘I can do that.’”
One of the tubbers who was sunk last year was Nanaimo’s Jaime Garcia, who was on the ocean for two hours before capsizing near the Winchelsea Islands.
“This year I’ve got a spare motor, spare gas tank, everything. There’s no way I’m not finishing this race,” he said.
He’s entered the great race eight times, finishing only once, the 2008 race in which he was second in the modified class. Since then he’s souped up his vessel to super-mod and the possibility of winning keeps him coming back every year.
“You ask yourself, ‘what the heck am I doing out here in the middle of this, in this little boat, getting slammed by waves, going through waves?’ You just get beat up,” Garcia said. “It’s in the spirit of competition that you’re doing it.”
There’s no such thing as smooth sailing in a tub, even when the weather is clement. The tiny boats have to go far enough out to sea that there’s no hiding from the waves.
“All the tubbers say the same thing,” McGuire said. “If the wind doesn’t get you slapping you in the face going up, it’s smacking you in the head coming back.”
Spectators don’t get to see all those off-shore adventures, but the event is still surprisingly fan-friendly for a boat race. At the start line in Nanaimo harbour, there will be a lot of tubs and only a little bit of space.
“When you’ve got 40 or 50 tubs out there and they’re all heading out of the harbour, it’s really exciting to see,” said McGuire. “You’re always looking for the Silver Plunger winner, which is the first tub to go down, and there always seems to be one or two of those right away.”
Most of the fanfare is at the end of the race, an hour or two later depending on conditions. Spectators line the beach to cheer the tubbers as they motor in to shore, find their land legs and stumble up to the finish-line bell.
“I get goosebumps right now just thinking about it,” Garcia said. “It’s a feeling of accomplishment, it’s a feeling like no other.”