By Ian Shalapata of The Windsor Square

The usually calm waters of the Detroit River were churning with action and excitement as the 39th edition of the International Tug Boat Race got under way. The riverbanks were packed with spectators on both sides as tugs and smaller vessels raced upriver to Dieppe Park. The sour weather just couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the people watching from the shore, nor those aboard the boats.

The international race was first run in 1949 and continued yearly until participation dropped off. In 1976, the race was revived as part of the International Freedom Festival and then helped along again by local Detroit tug man Brian Williams. Each year he dedicates his participation in the race to his mother who succumbed to breast cancer.

The Windsor Square, a Windsor-based news service, was aboard Sheila Kaye, captained by Brian Williams. If you think it’s a spectacle to watch from the shore, being in the thick of the competition is an entirely different experience. While the captains skilfully manoeuvre their vessels, often only inches apart, those on deck are doing their part to help their side to win the race.

Water balloons are launched back and forth like two pirate ships at broadsides. Long range targetry is practiced by those in possession of super-soakers, all in the name of friendly competition. That was at the heart of the race as witnessed by deckhands of Sheila Kaye and Josephine shaking hands as their boats travelled under full steam.

This year, Williams continues to carry on a family tradition since his father began racing tugs in the 70s. Over the past few years, Williams has dipped into his own pocket to ensure the survival of the race, and he has personally purchased the awards and plaques that are handed out to the various class winners. He and his family also keep a dutiful watch on the hardware, making sure they’re kept safe between races.

The International Tug Boat Race is also supported by Windsor Port Authority, which assists with a donation toward the insurance needed to keep the race operating each year. A large donation from Cummins Diesel helps with the race costs, and the Windsor Parade Corporation does all the organizing to ensure everyone gets to the starting line on time

However, the lion’s share of the expenses are borne by the tug boat operators, simply for the joy of competing and the camaraderie on the water. Fuel costs can run as much as $2,000 for the one mile race along the river. And if there is a breakdown or if repairs are needed, they cover those expenses themselves.

This year, eleven boats participated in the race, some coming from as far north as Parry Sound and as far south as Toledo. After the run, the tugs docked at Dieppe Park where a BBQ and ceremony, open to the public, was held to distribute the awards.

Detroit-based Sindbad was the over-all winner, with captain Marc Blancke awarded the top trophy. The owner of the Detroit restaurant of the same name also took home the prize for top Class 4 vessel. This is the second year in a row that Sindbad has taken top honours.