Why not a Floating Bay to Breakers?

Thousands of Bathtub races, in which folks let their imaginations and inhibitions run riot, take place in waterfront communities across the country. With the Bay Area rediscovering protected inlets like San Francisco’s Islais Creek, the Oakland Estuary and the North Bay’s Carquinez Strait, will Bathtub Races on the Bay become a new outlet for the zany?

 Bay Crossings sez "Bring ’em on"

for San Francisco’s Southern Waterfront

By Nancy Salcedo
Published: August, 2002

Where in the world is Islais Creek? It turns out it’s right where we want it to be," assures Julia Viera, founder of Friends of Islais Creek. In only ten years, this grass roots king pin has helped this industrial waterway, located between the Bayview and Potrero Hill on the southern San Francisco waterfront, emerge from a disturbed urban creek where you couldn’t even get through to the shoreline into a community-loved oasis. It now has a million-dollar promenade that is soon to double in size and the lovely Islais Landing across the water, complete with interpretive panels shrouded in well-tended native plants. Clearly, the benefits of parks, open space, and of places that promote local history are well understood along this section of the waterfront. Though this area is predominantly industrious at the hands of the Port of San Francisco, Public Works, Muni, Caltrans, and the Public Utilities Commission, it is also a community with residents like Julia Viera whose home overlooks the creek from up on Stoney Hill, as well as the fisherman and others who appreciate the creekside access. Being an urban waterway alone makes Islais Creek worthy of its public access. Add the fact that the creek is rich in local labor history, with tales of the Copra Crane, the Longshoremen, and the Liberty shipyards, and you get a popular promenade. All that’s missing is the annual community festival.

"We didn’t plan on any of it," reflects Julia about the creation of public access along Islais Creek and subsequent projects along its shoreline. "We really were out to plant 28 trees." At the time, the State Department of Water Resources was looking for a project to improve a disturbed urban creek back in 1988, "and the next thing I knew I had a grant for $50,000 for Islais Creek!" Evading those who make their living on other people’s grant money, she opted to administer the project herself. "That’s when I went next door." Architect Robin Chiang, her neighbor, has been the president of Friends of Islais Creek ever since. He has recently designed an additional promenade and museum by the Copra Crane. "We operate with grants, mitigation funds from major infrastructure projects, and private donations. We agree to sewer projects, repair facilities and retrofits, and seek mitigation funds to create public access, recreational facilities, and open space where it is sorely needed."

The results are impressive. The Islais Creek promenade sits atop a sewer outfall transporting 80 million gallons per day of treated sewage. It is adored by skateboarders. The skyline just east of the Illinois Street drawbridge is dominated by the historic Copra Crane, once used to unload dried coconut meat at the copra dock, and now a city labor landmark—one of the last pieces of machinery operated by the longshoremen. Robin Chiang is the architect for the shoreline of the Muni diesel repair facility planned adjacent to the existing promenade that will feature a second promenade constructed as a half-scale model of the deck of the Jeremiah O’Brien, and a museum where the old longshoremen can teach kids about the old waterfront. It turns out that many of the old icons and landmarks of the southern waterfront, like Harry Bridges a local labor leader best known for his hand in Bloody Thursday (there is a plaque describing this event across from the new ball park), and even the Copra Crane came in on a Liberty ship like the Jeremiah O’Brien.

Not bad for an industrial creek at the end of the city’s trunk line. That this could become a recreational destination for the community, thanks to Friends of Islais Creek, is a stroke of genius. "We never know what the next idea will be, but when it comes up, we’ll be negotiating for mitigation funds, writing grant applications, and grinding out permits." Standing by the creek, something you couldn’t even do ten years ago, next to the pipe wrack of the Copra Crane that Friends of Islais Creek had moved to create the monument at Islais Landing, it’s clear that the stage is set for some sort of fun event where the community can come out and enjoy their long lost creek. Islais Creek has certainly come a long way; its waters historically tainted since the era of the slaughterhouses in the 1800s—and basically an open sewer until the 1950s. Perhaps it’s time for a "coming of age" party.

It’s been three years now since the last major party on Islais Creek. Attendees of the Opening Day Festival still remember outrigger canoe races and rides, the Bridge Tenders mariachi band (made up of public works employees who operate the drawbridge over Islais Creek), aerial dancers, an interactive mural, hot dogs, and antique cars. Most will agree that it’s high time for another one: Something cleverly plotted by someone with a good sense of humor. Something that the Maritime Museum and the Port of San Francisco would be proud to sponsor. Something like back in the years immediately following the 1906 earthquake, when the Bay-to-Breakers footrace was launched to cheer the city’s shaken sense of humor. Because Islais Creek is ripe for another event, and the Southern Waterfront has yet to appoint itself a colorful symbol, Bay Crossings proposes to instigate the first annual Islais Creek Bathtub Race.

What in the world is a bathtub race? "It’s a super-duper fabulous idea," laughs Julia. Bathtub racing is well established in other waterways across America and span waterfronts throughout the world. The earliest traceable tub race took place in 1956 on the Matsukawa River in Japan, and there are still annual races from Shoreham by the Sea in West Sussex, England to Rieti, Italy. Here, in the continental United States, seeping into the core of the culture of their host communities, tub races have glorified local waterways, setting the stage for their outright fame. A good tub race can catapult a local waterway to world class recognition, in the same way the Bay-to-Breakers made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records, and has become somewhat of a worldwide draw for racers who might like to dress up like a french fry.

Moravia, in the Finger Lakes region of New York and the hometown of President Milliard Fillmore, hosts the annual Fillmore Days Antique Bathtub race on the river running through town. As a result, the town is known throughout the country for its bathtub race. Trivia fans remember that it was Milliard Fillmore who had the first bathtub installed in the White House in 1851. Or, perhaps more entertaining still is the story of Mikes Reef, created by Mike Stark, owner of Scuba Cat Dive Shop on Patong Beach in Thailand. Mike initiated the first vertical bathtub race ever to commemorate the sinking of an old ship to create a new reef and dive site. The ship was sunk at the site of a once-large coral reef (sadly reduced by dynamite fishing). Each year on the anniversary of the sinking of the reef-ship Marla’s Mystery, Mike launches ten bathtubs with holes drilled in the bottom over the side of his vessel. The racers-divers have to scramble to get in the tubs before they start to sink. Once inside, the divers race the 104 vertical feet to the finish line on the bottom, where the tubs are flipped over and placed around the old ship and secured with rocks to become fish condos. This bathtub race is not only an important part of public relations for Mikes Reef, but also an important part of habitat construction for the rejuvenation of the local marine life.

Then, offshore in Vancouver, there is the city of Nanaimo’s "Great International World Championship Bathtub Race," held annually in Nanaimo harbor. Beginning as the Centennial Event for the City of Nanaimo back in 1967, the race has become the mother of all bathtub races, and they sanction other such events throughout Canada for other communities who want a piece of the action. The race kicks off a four day Nanaimo Marine Festival, and July is "Bathtub Race Month."

Can you see it? From the dock at Islais Landing and from the promenade, hundreds gather to watch as the bathtubs launch into the creek and begin paddling feverishly to stay afloat and race to the finish line, their teams on hand to help bail if necessary, their tubs decorated to reflect their allegiance of their race team: the Port of San Francisco’s tub, The Maritime Museum’s tub... In the background is the mariachi music, the sound of the tapping beach...