When late Nanaimo mayor Frank Ney created the Great International World Championship Bathtub Race in 1967, he wanted to put the Harbour City on the map.
The enduring interest in the annual Bathtub race, now part of Marine Festival every July, suggests Ney was on to something, creating a unique event to make people chuckle and say, “Only in Nanaimo.”
The Bathtub races have seen a fall off in competitors and a declining interest in Marine Festival from its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. But the announcement by the Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society to change the course to have it start and end in downtown Nanaimo will hopefully reinvigorate the festival for many years to come.
Departure Bay is a beautiful spot from which to watch the races, either from the beach or the water, but it posed challenges to race organizers dealing with traffic and parking. It also divided the festival, with spectators racing from downtown to Departure Bay; invariably, a few went home or skipped the race opening altogether.
The new format will help keep the crowd together, which provides for a more vibrant festival. More people means more customers for food and craft vendors, and cheering fans for entertainers, not to mention the brave – and let’s admit, slightly crazy – Bathtub racers who deserve the roar of the crowd after battling wind, rough seas and the occasional sealion to ring the bell on shore.
Tourism advocates moan that Nanaimo has no major attraction, that there’s nothing to stop travellers once they disembark from the ferry. Arguably true, save for one weekend out of the year.
Like MusicFest in the Comox Valley or Salmon Fest in Port Alberni, the Bathtub race could put Nanaimo not only on the tourist map, but also on the calendar.