Think about lobsters racing; a perfect oxymoron.

Few have ever witnessed it, and it only happened once. For three days in August in the mid 80s, lobsters “raced” in a big tank in the exhibition tent at the Maine Lobster Festival. I was there.

In fact, it was my event.

At the time, I was a director in the Festival Corporation. At one of our winter meetings, the idea of a lobster race was floated and discussed. I  worked for a lobster dealer in Spruce Head for about 11 years, helping manage 52 tanks of live lobsters. Being young and full of it, I volunteered to be in charge of the event. I knew a tank full of live lobsters always draws a crowd, tourists and locals alike.

By the time late July rolled around, I secured an eight-foot long fiberglass tank three feet deep, a length of hose, and a very loose plan to get water in and out of it. I knew I wanted to build an open system, because of it’s simplicity.

The tanks you see in a restaurant or grocery store are complex closed systems. They re-circulate, chill and filter the salt water. My system would pump real salt water from Rockland Harbor into my tank, then drain it back over board.

Step one

I had to get seawater into and out of the tank.

My first pump was not big enough, so after finding a bigger pump, the next problem was how to keep the suction line from filling the tank with sand sucked from the bottom of the harbor.  I was saved by a shopping cart I found overboard. I stood the cart up and dropped my suction line into the cart, which kept my line a good two feet off the bottom.

Step two

Now with a properly working tank, I set about making lanes for lobsters to run in side by side. My setup allowed five lobsters to race at a time.

The next challenge was to give lobsters an incentive to move from the starting gate to the finish line at the other end of the tank. I knew from my Spruce Head education that lobsters would stack up in the darkest corner of the tank. I surmised that making one end of the tank dark would motivate them.

After placing a shade over the far end of the tank, my test lobsters would move toward it most of the time.

Step three

This involved creating the race, and where I really struggled. With some help, we created a concept of contestants paying a fee of $5 to pick a lobster to race. The contestant who’s lobster came in first would win a T-shirt. Luckily for me, the day the first race was to begin, my old high school history teacher Gary Davis showed up. In his slow drawl, he said “I hear you could use some help.”

I sure did.

I did not know Gary was a world class carnival barker, having done so for many years at the Potato Blossom Festival in Aroostook County.  He worked the crowd, race by race rounding up the five contestants needed to start a race.

“You, sir, get a dollar out of your pocket!” and “Hi there, yes you. Come over here for a minute.”

It was amazing to watch. After lining up five excited lobster jockeys, we announced the race would begin. By then, there would be a good crowd.

I would lift the gate… and nothing happened, this always got big laughs, then tense silence, then cheering to urge the lobsters forward.

After about five minutes, one of the lobsters would lift both claws up and begin to step forward like a fork truck with the forks up. The other bugs would catch on, and we would have us a race. So it went for three long days. The event was a success.

I am glad to have it on my resume. But I would not care to wager it will ever return.

But I do have a sure bet lined up for one and all. The Maine Lobster Festival will return.

It always comes back.

The lobster. Drawn by Dan Kirchoff

Glenn Billington is a lifelong resident of Rockland and has worked for The Courier-Gazette and The Free Press since 1989.