Tri-Cities tubbers ride the waves

Chris Glenn has been racing bathtubs for four decades

Chris Glenn stiffly waddles around his Port Coquitlam yard feeling the painful aftereffects of his latest dangerous bathtub adventure.

Yes, that's right, bathtub adventure.

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It's nothing new for him since he's been a bathtub racer for four decades. His latest suffering on the seas came in a bathtub race revival at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver on Saturday. This Saturday he plans to be out on the water again, either at an inaugural race at Boundary Bay or a long-standing event in the Okanagan at Summerland. And he's going to keep on riding the waves in his tubs even though he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and daily chemotherapy tires him out.

"I want to keep trying to do everything I was doing because I was laying around there for two months, three months thinking that I'm gone," says Glenn, 61. "When they told me I have one year to live I said, 'Not a chance. Not a chance. I'm going to do everything I can.' That was seven months ago and I don't feel like I'm gone in another three or four months. I feel better than I did last year. So that's probably why I'm going to keep doing everything."

Glenn was working for Port Mann Plumbing in the late ’70s when the company built a tub for an employee of one of its suppliers who was racing in the famous Nanaimo to Vancouver bathtub race.

Glenn was in the escort boat on race day. The tub was having a rough ride and the driver broke two ribs, but he kept going before hitting a wave so hard it split the boat.

"It was still drivable because the gas line was still holding the boat together," recalled Glenn. "So I said, 'Get out of there, let me try it.' I didn't even put a life jacket on. I jumped in there with my stupid hockey jacket on, jeans and as soon as I got wet it was even worse. So I started going and I thought, 'this is fun' until it split apart on me even more.

"I'm sitting in the boat and my escort driver, they were all drinking, and they're not even watching me now. They're taking care of Don and they're drinking. They're still going and I'm stopped dead in the water and I'm up to [his chest] in water sitting there trying to keep it from going under. I was so worried about the motor because we'd just spent $3,000 on a motor and I did not want to lose my motor. I got to Spanish Banks and we were right behind the guys who won it, two Australians. We were roughly in fifth spot at that time, but we blew it, we didn't finish."

But he wasn't finished as a tubber. He was just starting.

"That was my first time, and I thought 'that was fun! Crazy, but fun,' ” says Glenn.

One of the strangest sights in the event was seeing the tubbers stumble and bumble their way up the beach to ring a big bell to signify they'd completed the race.

"When I got there, I thought I could walk. It was embarrassing! I could not get up. It was the weirdest feeling," says Glenn. "I got out of the boat and I went woof, right under the water. I got up once, went two feet and fell flat on my face again. I think I did that three times before I got to the bell."

Chris Glenn
Chris Glenn of Port Coquitlam flies through the air during a bathtub race. - Contributed/Natasha Willoughby

It took him 10 years to get close to the top five guys. He really didn't get there until one of the top tubbers, two-time champion Jimmy Dunn, needed some plumbing work done. Glenn said he'd do it as long as Dunn lent him his tub's hull so he could make a mould of it.

"As soon as I got Jimmy Dunn's hull then I went right up to first or second place every time," says Glenn.

Then after he started doing well, he lost his prized propeller when he hit a rock off Gabriola Island riding the top of a wave. His escort boat, though, overturned on a big wave trying to rescue him. Eventually, the Coast Guard hauled him out of the water and he went to hospital after suffering severe neck injuries.

"The only thing I was worried about was my prop. When I saw my [mangled] prop I thought 'My racing career is over,' " says Glenn.

He'd gotten the prop from Louisiana, but the pattern was lost in Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately the mould was found in the mud a few years later and Glenn, who has built more than 30 racing tubs himself, was back in business.

Although the Nanaimo to Vancouver race was eventually sunk for safety and financial reasons in 1996, Nanaimo still puts on an event that runs the same distance on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Glenn won it in 1997 and 2000.

So he was excited when the organizers of last week's KitsFest decided to revive those cross-strait memories by racing tubs around a 1.5 kilometre loop next to Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach.

"It was great. I thank the [organizers] so much. I just missed it so many years," says Glenn.

He was in the first heat up against another long-time tubber, Brian Stoochnow of Coquitlam, a mechanic who has built bathtub engines for Glenn. The significance of the race being back at the beach affected both of them before they even got in the boat.

"I was sick to my stomach before this race," says Glenn. "I had to go to the can about four times. I'm thinking 'What's wrong with me?' ”

Stoochnow admitted all the hype prior to the event had got to him. He woke up the morning of the race anxious and nervous.

"I got phone calls and notes from people. There was a lot of pressure. I didn't realize it until it came race day," says Stoochnow, who is also 61 and has been racing since the 1980s. "But as soon as I got in my bathtub and I started it up it was all gone."

Glenn says he was leading on the first two laps, but then a big wave struck his tub. He was kneeling and the wave drove him down on top of a wedge sitting between his legs sending him into the agony that most men experience at one time or another. It was particularly painful considering Glenn's prostate cancer.

Glenn figured he was toast. But then Stoochnow caught him, and he got mad. All his friends were watching, too, so he said to himself "I'm not done." He hit the gas and went after Stoochnow. "I thought if, 'I'm going to flip the boat I'm going to do it in front of the crowd.' So I gave her full throttle and Brian and I were side-by-side," says Glenn.

He says he got in front of Stoochnow but with half a lap to go his tub came to an abrupt stop.

"I smoked myself into my steering wheel. You wouldn't believe what I hit. A rope three foot long, half-inch nylon, I hit it so hard it stopped me within 10 feet. My knees and everything got jammed under the steering wheel and I was out in front of the boat," says Glenn.

Tri-City tubbers
Brian Stoochnow of Coquitlam, left, and Port Coquitlam's Chris Glenn at a KitsFest press conference at Kitsilano Beach on Aug. 10 prior. - Dan Toelgout/Vancouver Courier

With the help of a tubber racing in another class he got the rope off and finished the race, but by that time Stoochnow was already on the beach and Glenn's body was telling him he was beached for the day, too sore to go in the final.

Like Glenn, Stoochnow has suffered his fair share of injuries. The years have taken its toll on his back, but "I'm a grinder. I just keep on going out there and doing it."

Stoochnow went on to finish second in the final, but figures his engine was only going at two-thirds power and some tinkering will make it good for Boundary Bay this weekend. He just might run up against Glenn again. Despite the stiffness from Saturday, he'll race either in Tsawwassen or in Summerland. He can't resist.

Says Glenn as he gingerly lifts his battered body out of his lawn chair, "The way the boat went this weekend, I've got to race."

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