"There are two types of people," says Dave Parsons, the James
Naismith of codfish racing, "those who enter greased codfish
relay races, and those who smell good." I count myself among the
former. And so, having baited two friends and a stranger into
joining me, I find myself in Milbridge, Maine.
This is an article from the Sept. 16, 1996 issue
Milbridge (pop. about 1,300) is a fishing village about 40 miles
east of Ellsworth (where an L.L. Bean factory outlet is
located). Lobsters, sea urchins and, yes, cod are plumbed from
the harbor carved out by the Narraguagus River. The local
restaurants--both of them--close by 9 p.m. on summer weekends.
That's because Milbridge folk rise earlier than most. "If I wake
up at 5:30 [a.m.]," says Chris Chipman, a lobster fisherman and
volunteer fireman, "it feels like I've slept half the day away."
This coastal hamlet, which was incorporated in 1848, throws
itself a birthday party every summer on the final weekend of
July. On Friday night there's a cribbage tournament, and the
next morning, at 6:30 (so you can sleep in), there's a blueberry
pancake breakfast followed by a parade. But we are here for the
headline event, the annual Codfish Relay Race, even if it is no
longer possessed of the wondrous innocence it had when Parsons
first conjured it up, "irrespective of anything," in 1984.
"I don't race anymore," says Milbridge resident Debra Simons, a
waitress at the Red Barn, whose team, the Red Barn Waitresses,
won the first three relays. "So many rules now: No reversible
rain slickers. No rubber gloves. Can't stick your fingers in the
gills or eye sockets [did I mention that the cod are dead?] to
achieve a better hold."
Indeed, the halcyon days of codfish relay racing in Milbridge,
when Parsons would settle disputes by riffling through a
clipboard of papers on which the rules were supposedly
inscribed--only he knew that the pages were blank--are over. So
too are the days, if in fact they ever existed, when a brash
rookie quartet could hike or, more likely, sail into town on
race day contemplating victory.
"How long you been practicing?" asks Brandon Holmes, who is 14
and a camper at Berwick Boys Camp on nearby Dyers Island, which
fielded last year's champion. We are sitting on the porch of the
Moonraker Bed and Breakfast, watching the parade bleed down U.S.
1. With us are my roommate from back in college, Jeff Grace, and
his new bride, Sheryl, who I imagine is having second thoughts
about the vows recently exchanged. We have yet to meet our
fourth teammate, Anda Rojs (pronounced ON-da royce), the
girlfriend of Chris Anderson, the photographer who is working
with us on this story. And so, three hours before race time, we
have yet to train.
"Um, we haven't yet," I reply. "How about you? Did you put in an
hour or two this morning?"
Brandon regards me quizzically, as do a few of the other locals
within earshot. "We had tryouts for our team three weeks ago,"
he says. "Every boy in camp. We've been training every night
this week, lugging bulky, greased-up sacks that have 35 pounds
of lead weights inside 'em, jiggling around, the way the fish
What hath cod wrought?
My first choice for anchor leg had been Mike Smoron, another pal
from my alma mater, Notre Dame, who is now a lawyer in Chicago.
Weeks earlier I had faxed him details of the race and then given
him my sales pitch. "Smo, you ran cross-country at school," I
implored. "We need you."
He began to warm to the notion. "Hmm," he mused, "I did attend
four years of dances at ND. I know what it is to embrace cold
"Codfish, Smo," I said.
Unfortunately, Smoron's schedule precluded his participation,
and Anda, a native of Slovenia who spent last winter on the
Women's Pro Ski Tour, becomes our last hope. She gamely agrees
to cast her lot with us, but wonders aloud, "What is this
codfish racing you Americans do?"
Quickly, then: four teammates, two at each end of a 30-yard
stretch of meadow; one set of firefighter's turnout gear, which
includes hip boots, a yellow slicker, a sou'wester and gloves;
and one cod, greased in sardine--not cod-liver--oil and weighing
about 20 pounds. The person running the first leg dons his or
her gear, grabs the fish and sprints to runner number 2. There
the first runner hands off the cod, removes the firefighter's
garb, retrieves the cod as teammate dons gear and then returns
it. Begin second leg. And so on. To pique fan interest, a squad
of locals unleashes a full-throttle jet of water from a fire
hose at the racers.
"To win, you must be able to dress and undress quickly," says
Becky White, a family-services coordinator at the Milbridge Head
Start program. Her all-female squad, the Crazy Cod Hoppers
(CCH), established the course record of 1:55.63 (like their
Olympic counterparts, cod relays are timed to the 100th of a
second) in 1989.
Women's teams won the first nine relays, and the CCH had a
six-year dynasty going until 1993, when they became embroiled in
the most serious controversy the sport has known, or at least
the gravest since Parsons ruled in 1988 that "contestants must
be reasonably sober."
Bill Handrahan, proprietor of the Moonraker, who was the race
official in charge that day, explains: "The Cod Hoppers, instead
of wearing their gloves, rested them in the palms of their
hands, to save time." Whereupon he produces an incriminating
photo. It shows Handrahan's right hand raised in a halt gesture
as White, fish in tow and bare knuckles in clear view, runs
"I made Becky return to the changeover area and the Cod Hoppers
lost," says Handrahan. "Later, her dad confronted me. Stood
eye-to-eye with me. 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself,' he
said. He's still sore."
Pressed to explain, to exonerate herself of having conspired to
do something so, well, fishy, Becky issues a terse rejoinder:
The race approaches. We have time enough to perform one
run-through and then devote ourselves to thinking up a team
name. Suggestions range from the obvious Cod-forsaken to the
oblique ACLU (cod-carrying members) before we finally settle
upon A Fish Called Anda. We will run in the third heat of four.
I handicap the Milbridge Fire Department foursome as the
favorites in the 11-team field. After all, they're familiar with
the gear. And if firefighters do not dress quickly, who then?
Chipman, a member of the MFD team, generously offers the rookies
some advice. "Bathe yourself in talcum powder so your boots and
jacket slide off easier," says Chipman. "Oh, and those
nasal-strip thingies? Bad idea."
After two heats the Berwick Boys have had the fastest time
(2:30.24), five seconds ahead of the firemen. Sheryl notices
that the hydraulic barrage from the fire hose has rendered one
of the cod, which at $4.50 a pound are reused for each heat,
less than whole. "Its innards are hanging out!" she cries.
I seek out Parsons. What is done in the event of one's cod
becoming cod pieces? He cites the official rules: "If fish is
broken in one or more pieces, all pieces must then be retrieved
& carried to completion of race. Failure to do so will cause
disqualification." Parsons grins. "No guts," he says, "no glory."
Our heat begins, and fortunately we land a firm, whole cod. A
good racing cod. Jeff, despite his 6'4" stature and the
concomitant difficulty of fitting into the boots, stakes us to
an early lead. Sheryl holds it. As she undresses at the end of
her leg, one of her hip boots stands up on its own and Anda,
displaying the agility that made her a three-time All-America
skier at Colorado, steps into it, no hands. It is, in codfish
relay racing, the equivalent of Willie Mays's circus catch of
Vic Wertz's shot in the 1954 World Series. "She's a natural,"
Handrahan will later remark.
Our lead has become insurmountable. Upon reaching me, Anda
surrenders the cod. For the briefest of moments, I feel the
pride of a father just handed his firstborn. Despite mismatching
my boots, I anchor the team to a 2:21.91 finish. Not a record,
but good enough for us to win the race.
"Congratulations!" says Simons. Her surprise, nay, shock, is
genuine. Can it be that her faith in the sport has been
restored? That despite all the regulations, codfish relays can
still be reduced down to their core elements: man, woman, fish,
grease and firefighter's gear? Or is she stung by the fact that
the sport's newest darlings are a bunch of bottom feeders? "I'll
have to put a team together next year," she says.
Watch out, Debra. We'll be back.