I arrive in Brayford early in the morning, fresh from a redeye flight from JFK, well as fresh as I can manage. The race marshals are feverishly busying themselves with crowd control and river cleanliness. At 8:15am the place is already heaving with race fans and they continue to pour in through the flesh faucet. Although this is not an officially sanctioned duck race, many major officials remain in attendance, out of respect. They knew the BDR(Brayford duck racers) were screwed over by the IDRF(International duck racing federation), yet had no leverage. So the race will go ahead, despite the(highly suspicious) duck irregularities, but outside of the official federal season. Politics, the scourge that infests all. Despite this embarrassment the spirits are high, we could not have been blessed with better weather. A band noodle in a semi New Orleans style to duck fan’s backs. The ducks themselves all look resplendent in their rubbery yellow liveries, boldly displaying their regulation sized numbers. In the past there were many controversies regarding the size of the number. Some would write their own number so minutely that it was barely legible, claiming the duck would be higher in the water and thus faster. Others would virtually blacken the duck in ink, claiming the weight would take their duck down the river more swiftly. Now each bears a regulation number, each receiving the same amount of ink despite the numbers amount. Additionally each duck is inspected for butt abnormalities before embarking on their voyage.
Looking across the crowds, there is a difference between those who are here for fun and the serious observer. While some whole families are wearing the latest rubber duck regalia, flamboyant shirts, hats and novelty bills. Others are here strictly for business, their long coats are fit to bursting with books of odds and form, they study the ducks histories in these conditions, their weed weaving ability, their bobbing tendencies, every winning edge is pursued.
In the Pimms pavilion the mood is stiffening with the approach of the start of the race. I sit at the bar picking at a bowl of cashews. There are rumours that the favourite has a small scuff on her left breast, an easy thing to miss for the casual observer, but these are hardened racers! Many calls are made, many bets adjusted, these things set off ripples, suspicions, but it is too late now, the race is upon us.
In the launch-net a thousand and twenty ducks await the start. As do the feverish crowd, heaving and jostling for a spot along the bank of the river. I am bumped into the fringes, I was unprepared for the savageness of the crowd. The river looks pristine and calm, she has no idea what is about to hit her. As the jazz band fizzles out, the bullhorns crackle into life, the MC Gives some pleasantries to the sponsors, then he starts the countdown. As he hits ten the crowd join in en mass “Ten!.. Nine!.. Eight!.. Seven!.. Six!.. Five!.. Four!.. Three!.. Two!.. One!”. The net is opened and a custard cascade of rubber ducks are released plunging into the water, I crane forward but can barely make out the racers through the violence of the crowd, the crowd bob as I imagine the ducks are. Now we start our own race, to chase the race along the banks, to see the early leaders. My being bubbled from the frothing glass leaves me at an advantage. I sprint down river passing many a dozing camper in deck chairs, they are unprepared for the approaching mass of fanatics. Miraculously I find myself in front, in clean air. Looking across I see the leading ducks alongside me, serene, they make it look so easy. But reeds lay ahead, and the dreaded duck weed.
I have little time to dally as I can feel the crowd approach, yet my legs are contemplating retirement, I have no heart for the fight, so I back away from the river as an avalanche of loons pours through. I give a wish to the ducks, a blessing that none are fatally caught in the weeds, then head back to the start. Along the way I see a couple of medics are attending to some victims that could not extricate themselves from their chairs fast enough, they were trampled underfoot. As were the flowers once standing proudly by the footbridge, now purple patches on the grass. Back at the start, attendants look in a state of shock, eyeing the endless cans, wrappers and plastic forks, morosely they begin the clean-up. I ask a particularly careworn man in sagging official duck tabard if it is like this every year, he just nods and continues filling another black bin bag. I enter the bar tent and order a mint julep, sitting on my own, I contemplate how innocent rubber ducks came to this. I guess we as a race, are on an unstoppable ride of consumption, no one knows why they are on it, yet no one wishes to get off.