Behold, the Crab Master!
Broome, Western Australia
The Crab Master
From outside, The Beer & Satay Hut looked like any other pub in Broome; a timber construction leading through to a courtyard bar in the back. We wandered in, immediately realising that things were a little different.
“The rules are simple,” shouted the Crab Master, a middle-aged man wearing a giant crab hat, “first crab to the edge of the ring wins.” The crowd cheered its approval. “But remember,” he cautioned, “no pointing at the crabs!”
This was our introduction to the weird world of Australian crab racing. The rules were simple; raffle tickets were sold before each race. The Crab Master then picked eight tickets out of a hat, inviting each winner to select a crab from a bucket. All the crabs were then placed in the centre circle and the race started. If your crab crossed the finish line first, you won the prize money.
People had come from every echelon of Broome society to enjoy the races. Backpackers rubbed shoulders with locals, whilst affluent tourists sat at tables sipping cocktails. Mixing amongst them were women in yellow t-shirts, laughing as they sold raffle tickets. “My lucky number,” said one with a wink, handing me ticket ’69’. “Bit of a mouthful though,” she chuckled, disappearing into the crowd.
The constant chatter and blaring jukebox merged to create a unique noise, a concoction of conversation and ‘Khe Sahn’. The only thing that interrupted was the Crab Master’s trumpet call, signalling the start of each draw. A cheer went up as each ticket was announced; accompanying the winner as they staggered forward to chose a crab. Then, on the fourth draw, it happened. “Sixty-Nine!” shouted the Crab Master.
There were five crabs left in the bucket, all sitting in the bottom looking nervous. To a crab-racing novice like myself they all looked the same; a shell with legs. Choosing the fastest through sight alone was impossible, so I let luck decide, grabbing blindly for the first one that came to hand. “Number five,” shouted the Crab Master, writing my name next to the name of my crab, ‘Nettles’.
The rules of crab racing
With the crabs ready on the track, the race the Crab Master recapped the rules. “Remember,” he shouted, “no pointing at the crabs.” Apparently this, and any other sudden movement, would upset them. We could make as much noise as we liked, but anyone pointing would be shot – literally! Enforcing the rules were two burly minders, both armed with Uzi’s. During the race they scanned the crowd for offenders, dishing out justice with a rapid burst of gunfire. Luckily, the guns were only loaded with water.
“They’re under starter’s orders,” announced the Crab Master.
The crabs reacted to this in different ways. Some hid in their shells, whilst others tried to climb the barricade. Nettles sat completely still looking confused, and who could blame him? To a crab, this whole scenario must have appeared like a wild, drug-fuelled hallucination. Huge creatures surrounded him on all sides. One was even wearing a giant crab on his head!
Whilst the other crabs shot across the circular board, Nettles didn’t move. We screamed encouragement, but he just sat there, his legs tapping the ground nervously.
“Taking an early lead is number 2, closely followed by number 4…” commentated the Crab Master, “but it looks like number 5 is a non-starter.”
We’d almost given up hope when Nettles suddenly came to life, his instincts of self-preservation kicking in to fuel a survival reflex shared by creatures around the world – he ran!
“Catching up fast is number 5!” screamed the Crab Master, as Nettles scampered forward like a crustacean possessed. Whilst other crabs zig-zagged across the table, Nettles was on a direct path to the finishing line – he was flying! His nearest rival led by a couple of lengths, but Nettles was catching fast. We cheered as the line approached. “It’s gonna be close,” yelled the Crab Master.
Then, it happened.
Crab racing stable
A child in the front row raised a scrawny arm and did the unthinkable – he pointed at Nettles. Two bursts of water smacked the kid in the face, but it was too late. Nettles had stopped. All we could do was watch in silence as the other crab crossed the line, leaving a catatonic Nettles in his wake. It was all over.
As the winner collected his winnings we retreated to the bar to drown our disappointment. Although we’d lost, we took heart knowing that later that night the Crab Master would wander down to Roebuck Bay and return Nettles to the sea, leaving him to wander the ocean floor with a number on his back and a strange story to tell his mates.
We raised our glasses and drank a toast, “to Nettles, the fastest crab in WA.”