BERLIN — It might be appropriate that the winningest bathtub owner in the town’s history — Jesse Turner — retired this year because the Berlin Bathtub Races were reborn in exciting fashion last week.
Beginning with a parade that wound up an already enthusiastic crowd and ending with the controversial victory of one of the least traditional bathtubs imaginable.
Formerly part of another event, the bathtub races were usually held on a Saturday afternoon. The re-tooled event was moved to the shade of Pitts Street during the monthly 2nd Friday Arts Stroll and brought out what many bystanders, including Mayor Gee Williams, said was the largest crowd in recent memory.
In what was, in a way, the first public event held at the new Berlin Chamber of Commerce building, the racing tubs were displayed and lined up for a parade that began at the South Main Street Visitor Center.
The parade lasted only the few blocks between Jefferson and Pitt Streets but served to remove any apathy that might have surfaced about the event. By the time the two-block-long parade ended, the excitement had reached fever pitch.
As the race started, the crowd continued to push forward toward the finish line, each group hopping over the last until there was little room at the finish line.
A well-produced event is not worth having if the participants don’t deliver some noteworthy performances and the businesses who raced went full bore, not only in terms of their efforts but also in terms of the way they decorated their tubs.
From Jeffery Auxer’s luxury-car-themed tub to Burley Oak’s cask on wheels, the tubs showed off the pride and ingenuity the merchants brought to making their tubs good-looking, winning machines.
Of course, tub style and design cannot be mentioned without addressing the raging controversy over whether a kayak — a device traditionally used to keep water away from people — counts as a bathtub.
Conceived in partnership with Baked Desserts Cafe and Gallery, the Ayer’s Creek Adventure tub was a kayak on wheels.
Stephen Taylor, who built the tub, pointed out that it could hold the requisite amount of water and could be steered, two of the main criterion for entering a tub into the race. It also could be pushed and this is where there is little doubt about the team’s ability to win.
“We called Blake ‘the Stud Muffin’ and Karen ‘the Cupcake,’” said Robin Tomaselli, Baked Desserts owner and one of the team sponsors.
“Blake” was Blake Taylor, son of Ayer’s Creek Adventures owners Suzy and Stephen. “Karen” referred to Karen Barrett Clayland, a friend of the Taylors who volunteered to be the driver.
Stephen attributed the win, as did most of the others on the team, to Blake’s pure speed and power relative to the weight of the tub.
“I think that’s why we won the race,” Stephen said. “The heavier the vehicle the harder it is to get started.”
While this week there have been some questions raised about the fact that the kayak was allowed, they have mostly been tongue and cheek, but there will still likely be some changes in the event this year.
Although Pitt Street was a fantastic venue, the course might be lengthened and returned to Main Street, but it will almost certainly be kept on 2nd Friday.
Merchants all over town whether or not they were happy with the race results, were ecstatic over the turnout.
“These have been the best 8 days in a row we’ve ever had,” Tomaselli said. Although winning was a surprise, the bigger surprise was that the folks at Baked Desserts were too busy serving customers to see it.
The same held true for many of the town’s shops who did well both before, during and after the event.
Town Community and Economic Development Director Michael Day said that by all reports, the event created an economic boost all over town.
“The [Berlin] Coffee Shop ran out of ice cream. The [Atlantic] Hotel and the Globe were packed for hours afterwards,” he said. “I think we’ve created another trademark event for the town.”
Day praised the police department’s last-minute crowd control tactics that kept the event fun while keeping everyone safe.