An extract from this book – Sports the Olympics Forgot.
The Boats on Wheels races are held in Lubeck in the third week of August. The races are a throwback to the times when the Vikings used to regularly invade Western Europe and citizens had to either fight to the death or leave the area immediately.
The boats in the races must be vessels that can be used on water i.e. the wheels must be detachable and not fixed to the boat. There are categories for rowing boats, canoes, and small fishing boats. The boats are propelled along the streets using oars with rubber ends so that the wood doesn’t splinter on the concrete or tarmac. Rowing boats are single occupancy, canoes have two rowers, and fishing boats have between four and six crew members depending on the size of the boat.
There are a number of races in each category for both men and women depending on contestant’s ages. The U-21 race is over 5 miles, the 21-30 race is for 7.5 miles, and the 31 and above race is a distance of 10 miles. In most years, the number of contestants in each category is between 750 and 1000 split evenly between each age range.
The first round in each of the age ranges is split into four separate races and the idea in this first round is not to be caught by the Vikings. The starter, dressed as Neptune, fires a Very Light into the sky and the racers start to paddle away from the starting line. 5 minutes later the starter fires a distress flare into the sky and 25 Viking warriors start running after the contestants carrying plastic axes and wearing traditional helmets. If the Vikings catch a contestant and strike him over the head with their axe then the contestant, and his fellow crew members in canoes and fishing boats, takes no further part in the contest. Only those boats who reach the finishing line without being caught by a Viking qualify for the next round.
In the four races in the next round, the surviving qualifiers aren’t chased by Vikings but do race against each other to be in the first four past the post and so qualify for the four semi-finals, where only the top two qualify for the final. The Vikings re-appear in the final, but Neptune fires his distress flare only three minutes after the boats have left, which encourages everyone to work hard from the beginning rather than saving themselves for a sprint finish.
Sometimes a very fit Viking can cause problems in the qualifying races. In 1983 Gerhard Hingsen and his brother Sven from Hannover caught all the boats in the third race of the 21-30 canoe class qualifying and took great pleasure in hitting all the contestants. These people complained that the Vikings in other races hadn’t been as fit but the judges just ruled this as the luck of the draw and threw out the complaint. The Hingsens were used in the final too but met their match when they were beaten with oars by the Schmidt brothers from Bremen, who went on to win the 21-30 canoe class for the second year in succession.
The person with the most wins is Thomas Grobler from Munich, who won the rowing boat contest 11 times in two different ages ranges between 1998 and 2011, although he didn’t start to win straightaway: “No, in the first two years I entered in 95 and 96 the Vikings got me before the end, although I knew I was improving because the first year was after 4 miles and the second year after 7 miles, almost in sight of the finish line, which was really upsetting. It’s great fun but the final is the most difficult race as you have to row hard right away because those Vikings move quickly and three minutes is not much time for us to get away from them.” Alex Bengsten has won 10 titles, five in canoes and five in fishing boats, making him the only person to win five times in two different categories. He was also never caught by the Vikings in any race.
There have been a number of spectacular crashes particularly on the Muehlenbrucke, which is a slight bottleneck especially for the fishing boats. In 1998 the over 31 race in this category had to be abandoned when the boats in the lead clashed oars and fell off their wheels covering the road with debris and causing punctures for the other boats in the race. Of course, this meant the Vikings were able to axe all the contestants and no one won anything.