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Down through the years the entry list has grown and diversified, from bicyclists and war canoeists to roller skaters, men riding in wheelchairs and reclining on brass beds on wheels. The only restriction is that no entry is permitted that will cause air pollution.
The Great Race was never serious, and over the years it has become progressively less so. In 1968 three girls in a canoe were marooned on an island off Marblehead. A group of male canoeists went ashore after them. By actual count, the combined parties declined 27 separate offers of rescue by helpful outsiders.
There have been no serious accidents in The Great Race; the only problems have involved managing the crowds. When Killer Kane was in charge and collecting entry fees ($8 a head this year, $6 previously), some people asked why he should be "getting by," as he puts it, on public property. And when entry applications zoomed past an arbitrary maximum of 2,000 last month, the Marblehead town fathers finally voted not to allow the race at all. But then the Marblehead Elks Club was given a chance to run it, with the understanding that a third of the proceeds would go to town activities. "The town took it from Kane," the Elks were saying. "I gave it to them," said the Killer, who nevertheless sent off all the "morons" at the starts. But then, The Great Race is full of differing points of view, and little pockets of competitiveness.
There were the canoeists who sneaked away early in the dark and were two miles downriver at the time of the official start. And there was David Nazaroff, owner of the 14-man war canoe, second boat to make it into Boston Harbor. It had been the first entry to finish last year, in 3:56, and was of course disqualified, which frustrated Nazaroff, who said, "That's what makes the whole thing such a crock. You win, they say no, you're disqualified, and you feel like punching them in the mouth."
And now his big canoe was moving past the U.S.S. Constitution—Old Ironsides—between the piers of Charlestown and East Boston and into Chelsea Creek. At the Union Oil Terminal 28 arms and 28 legs dragged the craft up a rocky bank and over five railroad tracks and began a one-mile portage, up Route C-1, through the parking lot of Cerretani's Supermarket, to Revere Beach. There they tried to launch it in the surf and immediately it swamped, tipped over, almost broke in half and sank. By then it was 6 a.m. and Nazaroff and his crew were through for the day, so they loaded the war canoe in a truck and became the first partyers at Marblehead.
At 7:16, after a five o'clock start, a Marblehead runner named Jim Flynn finished the 23 miles of the land route and was disqualified. At 8:05 a six-man bike pulled in. It had started at four, as had a three-man, 16-foot Texas Light Dory, which took 15 minutes longer to cover the 24-mile ocean route. And at 8:25 a 13-man foot-powered scooter came across, with its siren wailing, trailing a thick cloud of smoke from an orange flare. It had a tiller man and 12 pushers, six of whom moved it while the others rested under a canopy, awaiting their turn.
Off the beach, a three-man canoe waited for a wave, aiming for a glorious Polynesian-style finish. But Devereux Beach is rocky and steep, and the canoe crunched bow first and tumbled over its occupants, one of whom stumbled ashore with a gash on his face. Moments later another canoe took a wave broadside in the surf and the two canoeists had to be dragged ashore.
The horizon by then was dotted with other canoes, and the strip of people along the water's edge began to deepen. When a big set of waves broke and those in front leaped back to escape, those behind fell like dominoes.
The place to stand was on the height over the beach, away from the crush at the water's edge, with a good view of the surf on one side and the finish line on the other. Observers who were there at 9:10 saw what looked like the skeleton of an immense something wheeling down the road—yes, at least eight feet high and almost twice that long. It was the Turtle, minus its skin—green plastic garbage bags that had blown off along the way. It had two wheels in front and four more along its rear. Four men had run inside the triangular framework for five hours and 25 minutes.
And that is how it would go for the rest of the morning: madness. A 10-man scooter came in; a surrey with a fringe on top; a 10-man, two-deck, 11�-foot high, 1,600-pound bicycle; and clouds of two-wheelers. The crowd spilled off the road and into the parking lot, where the finish line was, up over the rise to the beach and into the surf, where the armada of canoeists provided a shipwreck a minute. And where at 10:15 a little girl screamed, "Look, Mommy, a car in the water."