Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Tub Racing!!!

When Winter Harp's medieval instrument player Joaquin Ayala isn't playing his rare instruments, he's often up to all sorts of crazy and fun adventures. This past summer he decided to enter the famous Nanaimo Bath Tub race. And his sponsor was Winter Harp. Heck, why not have a Christmas harp ensemble sponsor a summer bath tub racer?! Nanaimo is one of our favourite places to play -- so it seemed a natural fit. So, with Winter Harp emblazoned on the side of his tub, Joaquin took to the salt chuck. Here is his story:

The City of Nanaimo has been holding a very peculiar and arcane race since the late 1960's which involves a flotilla of 50 to 100 small high speed boats each of which, according to the rules, must contain "a component that conforms to the general shape and design of an old style roll edge bathtub". The boats are powered by a small outboard motor of 8 horse power, but certain modifications are permitted which significantly increases their efficiency. The course leaves Nanaimo harbor, goes up the coast around the Winchelsea group of islands and back for a total run of 36 miles. Most of the race, certainly the hardest stretch, is the climb up the coast, since there are always severe head winds and waves of 3 to 5 feet, or more, are not uncommon. The sport should probably be considered "extreme" in as much as it is a race and it does involve pounding very heavily in very tiny boats through very rough water. Tactics, strategies, technology, and the tenacity of the pilot all combine to make this a very real, if not altogether serious, test of the ingenuity and fortitude of the contestants. Certainly after competing in this race I can say with utter confidence that after racing tub, everything else has the volume turned waaaay down.

For my part, I have never really had much of an interest in spectator sports or athletic competition, but having said that, I would be the first to say that running the bulls in Pamplona is far better than being an armchair Hemingway. In this spirit, I commissioned a bathtub and acquired a motor complete with surface piercing propeller and with the help of a very talented rigger, Mr. Jay Willoughby, we put the thing together and did a couple of experimental runs. As usual and as is my preference everything was left to the last minute (thus allowing the maximum opportunity for spontaneity and improvisation). I only managed to get a couple of hours of "seat time" in the tub, but I learned quickly enough that these type of boats are extremely unstable at low speeds and that each wave has to be read correctly and quickly to steer through, around, or under it to avoid flipping over. Whereas in a larger boat reading every single wave is not essential, or even possible, in a craft this small and this light it is essential. The power of 8 horses is very substantial when considering that the boat weights a little over 70 pounds and even with the weight of the motor, fuel and driver, the power to weight ratio is a bit over 40 lbs per horse power - fast enough to get into lots of trouble. The tubs spend much of their time out of the water, and landing badly can have disasterous consequences.

The day of the race came, and after the initial pilot and escort boat captain meeting, we all jumped in our craft and started milling about the start line. The starting gun went off, very quickly the waters became extremely turbulent with the wake of dozens of tubs, and very shortly thereafter the more significant waves generated by dozens of escort boats. The general principle I have noted is that if one can make it out of the harbor, the chances of finishing are greatly improved. Much of the capsizes and collisions take place because too many boats in too small a space too closely grouped together can create chaos of epic proportions. The waves can develop into 7 foot monsters which can make the tubs totally disappear in the troughs until it is too late to take evasive action.

During all of this I was trying to stay out of harm's way by picking areas of least congestion, and as it turns out this was a strategic mistake because there are no areas of least congestion. The things one learns. I managed to get around Entrance Island and start the journey up the coast when I encountered some technical difficulty. The first thing that gave out was the (required) oar which was held down by Velcro straps to the bow deck . I was about to toss the whole lot into the ocean, but I thought better about polluting the environment, so I put it under my leg in the tub and continued on. After passing many tubs I saw the helicopter flying overhead following my progress and realized that this was a good sign since that usually means that I was getting pretty close to the front of the pack. I was going pretty fast at this point and I later learned I had just zipped by the tub which would eventually win in my category. In fact, at this point I was about sixth from the lead -- victory was within my grasp. I could almost taste victory - but such is the fickle nature of the tubbing gods that even thinking such thoughts is seen as hubris and is immediately punishable by another taste not so flavourful, namely brine.

A series of unfortunate incidents followed in quick succession. Racing now across calmer water, I decided it was time to throw the paddle overboard regardless of the environment because I couldn't feel my leg anymore - I'd been pounding for half an hour against this stupid oar rather than against the high density padding which lined the tub. In so doing I accidentally pulled the safety lanyard, thus stopping the engine. Normally not a big deal, just reattach the lanyard and restart, but all the pounding had made great cracks in the hull. The only thing keeping me afloat was the fact that I was moving so quickly. As soon as I slowed, the water poured in. Suddenly down I went -- tub and all. I was laughing so hard that I couldn't right myself as the tub became unstable as it sank and a wave came over the top and rolled the boat over throwing me in for a swim. Some quick rope work by my assistants on the escort boat saved the tub and motor from going to the bottom in 300 feet of water, and we managed to drag it on board. Gallons of water spilled out. She was a wreck.

The tub sits in the fiberglass shop now being rebuilt and further modified to include extra floatation as well as a whole new deck and engine mounts. Back at the pub, the winner of the Stock class came in, my fabricator having built his tub (and many others on the circuit), and we filled the trophy cup with beer and all had a drink. It was something out of Le Mans, except it was Coors rather than Champagne, bathtubs rather than race cars, and Nanaimo rather than Sarthe, France.

I had a fabulous time in Nanaimo, and I really love the town. It's a combination of the faded glory of New Westminster with the easy living high quality of life characteristic of the Gulf Islands. As always, I'm looking forward to the concerts in December, but I will definitely be back next Summer to compete in the Great Bathtub Race which I intend to finish this time.

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