Nautical nonsense: From left, former committee member David Exell, race MC Bruce Barritt, the original non-secretary Colin Gladwin and former committee member David Panchaud at the home of Colin Gladwin and his wife Liz. *Photo by Sarah Lagan
Nautical nonsense: From left, former committee member David Exell, race MC Bruce Barritt, the original non-secretary Colin Gladwin and former committee member David Panchaud at the home of Colin Gladwin and his wife Liz. *Photo by Sarah Lagan
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WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 1: The Non-Mariners Race has been a permanent Bermuda fixture for as long as many of us can remember and its crazy quirks endear us all. Sandys Boat Club, which took over the running of the race five years ago, claims that this year will be the fortieth year the race has taken place. As a tribute to the fun and frolics throughout the years, the Bermuda Sun gathered together some of the island’s very first official Non Mariners including the original non-secretary Colin Gladwin, and his pal Ken Hall. They were there that fateful day when the race was born out of an alcohol-fuelled debate over a baby buggy. Business exec David Exell joined in the first couple of years, then in 1985 local comedian and businessman Bruce Barritt came on board as the wacky MC. His much-loved Not The Um Um-style satirical humour fit perfectly with the political pokes found within the non-crafts’ messages. In l999, store manager David Panchaud joined the society. They shared some of the highlights over the years with the Bermuda Sun’s Sarah Lagan from the home of Mr Gladwin (and via telephone in the case of Ken Hall).

The origins of the Non- Mariners Race lie in a hefty drinking session in the former Horse and Buggy pub on Queen Street in Hamilton.

Former store manager for Friths Liquors Ken Hall, and Colin Gladwin, a BF&M employee, were part of a small group of drunken “non-sailors” arguing over whether they could float a baby’s buggy from Albuoy’s Point to Whites Island.

After much debate, there was only one thing for it — they cast the pram over board to see for themselves.

Speaking to the Bermuda Sun from his England home, Hall flatly recalls: “It didn’t work. We threw the junk overboard and it sank — we just got it from the dump at Marsh Folly, it must have had a hole in it!”

Alas, the Non-Mariners Race was born. It is thought that this momentous turning point in Bermuda’s maritime history took place in 1964. With it, the Society of Non-Mariners was formed including members Walter Charlton, Lee Smith, Arthur McClaren, Freddie Foreman and Jimmy Chamberlain.

“There were about half a dozen of us non-sailors in the very beginning,” recalls Gladwin whose memory of events is fading. “There was a lot of action going on there — this thing’s been going for a little while!”

The year after the baby buggy incident, friends and family affected by their loved ones’ crazy antics, began creating their own floating crafts. This frivolous activity has now grown into a much-loved national event that attracts thousands of spectators to what has become the island’s biggest raft-up party.

A handful of races were missed over the years but it is reported by the race’s new facilitator, Sandy’s Boat Club, that this year is the fortieth Non-Mariners Race to take place.

One of Hall’s fondest memories of the Hamilton era was when a monster-shaped craft was seen near the Foot Of The Lane.

“Two nuns saw it and thought it was real so they reported it and the story was broadcast over ZBM!” he laughs.

Banned

The first three Non-Mariners Races were held in Hamilton before the British Royal Navy’s non-craft drifted into the shipping lane just hours before the arrival of a cruise ship, and the race was promptly banned from Hamilton Harbour.

Then, for one year only, the race took place in St George’s.

“I seem to remember it went from Ordnance Island down to Convict Bay but we decided that the water was too deep,” remembers David Exell, co-owner of Standard Hardware and early committee member.

Rejecting an offer to hold the event in Dockyard, the committee decided to move to the picturesque Mangove Bay in Somerset where it has remained ever since.

When they met at the Sandys Boat Club’s official meeting room, they discovered their new mascot-to-be — a live cockroach called Archie.

Someone stamped on it and every year since, they have held a special Non- Mascot Memorial service for it prior to the race.

“I used to rest a boat oar on my shoulder and staked to this oar was a little matchbox which had our mascot in it,” Exell laughs.

“People couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on.”

“They still don’t after all these years,” jokes Bruce Barritt, local comedian and general manager for John Barritt’s & Son who joined as race MC in 1985.

Somber day

“Colin (Gladwin) would walk out in an old bed sheet and a brown paper bag on his head and say, ‘right, now it’s the ceremony’ and would launch into a reverential rambling. I would say: ‘Please make way ladies and gentlemen, this is a somber day, please remove your hats’, and people would actually go quiet.

“We’d carry a ‘Holy Bible’, which was nothing but a piece of wood with a hole in it and ‘Bible’ written on it.”

David Panchaud, former president and GM for Wheels Cycles who joined the committee in 1999, adds: “We just turned it into yet another thing to entice people”.

The memorial procession is just one of many amusing traditions that accompany the race today. The farcical annual Non-Penguins Fly-Over has been a fixture for so long that no one remembers how or when it started.

Panchaud just says of the mystical sub-tropical migration: “What do you mean where do they come from? They have always flown over from the South!”

“I’ve actually seen people set up a camera to try and catch it,” exclaims Exell.

“And then there is always the fictitious debate,” Barritt mimics: “No, no it’s not that way — it’s this way,” he gestures to the sky maniacally.

“It’s just a theatrical moment that adds
entertainment.”

But Gladwin has his own theory. “They travel so quickly, when you look up they’re gone.”

The noodle race for the children is also a permanent fixture. “I remember Colin saying that the kids getting involved was great — it encourages the youngsters to enjoy the event as well,” says Panchaud.

As for the Non-Calypso Pipe Band — from the beginning the musicians took it upon themselves to dress in outrageous attire quite often with men in scant women’s clothing. Barritt raises an eyebrow: “Peter Profit (band drummer) certainly likes the women’s clothing — stockings and all sorts.”

“It makes me wonder,” muses Panchaud.

One lesser-known tradition that used to take place in the years before the committee handed over the running of the event five years ago, was the annual Peanut Hunt.

Exell explains: “The ‘peanut’ was made out of concrete and was shaped like a peanut. Early in the morning we placed it in the shallow water out of Stag Rocks. It probably weighed 10lb or 12lbs — it was pretty heavy and they had to swim out there and try and swim back with it — that was the killer. If you were smart you would take a noodle with you and you could work in teams.”

“Then there was this guy Tatem,” Barritt interjects. “He’d shout out: ‘And the winner of the door prize is…’ and he’d hand someone a door and he’d throw it overboard.”

Gladwin laughs: “It was just a piece of wood and he’d just paddle his way out of there.”

The running of the Non- Mariners Race was eventually handed over to Sandys Boat Club about five years ago as the original committee members were “getting grey in the head and long in the tooth.”

Getting young blood involved in the running of the event was like “pulling teeth” according to Barritt.

Now led by the boat club’s commodore Brad Woodings, the race is still going strong and will hopefully be around for generations to come.

Panchaud remembers: “We didn’t have Facebook or Twitter back then — we had to stick the flyers on the buildings and write to all the clubs to get the word out there.

“When Jim Woolridge (the voice of Bermuda Cricket) was doing the Eastern County Games he would always announce it like a public service message — it planted the seed.

“It was a hell of a lot of work for a small group of guys. I started in 1999 and finished in about 2006.”

“Finished?” interjects a laughing Gladwin. “You never finish! You’re on for life!”