It was just after noon Saturday and a large blue-crab-mobile was drifting out into the harbor with four students from Arbutus Middle School aboard and unable to steer. The problem? A thrown sock puppet that had damaged their controls.
The absurd moment captured the spirit of the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, now in its 15th year, even down to the puppet as the source of mischief — carrying one is a requirement of the competition.
School principal Michelle Feeney watched anxiously from a pier at Canton Waterfront Park as a pair of kayakers paddled out to tow the middle-schoolers back to shore, so they could continue on their way.
"All they care about is who threw the sock puppet," Feeney said. (It was Ed Istwan, a race judge, who had seen it fall overboard.)
Finally, and with great effort, the vehicle lumbered out of the water to shouts of "Crab! Crab! Crab!"
All day Saturday a parade of kinetic sculptures — including a family of cannons, a tank made of beer boxes and a fleet of Star Wars space ships — wended their way for 14 miles through Baltimore's streets, into the water at Canton and through an obstacle course in Patterson Park.
From the sculptures themselves to the prizes doled out at the end of the day, the whole race is run in a spirit of goofy competition. The most coveted awards are not for the fastest finishers, but for those who come in dead in the middle, known as the Grand Mediocre Champion, and who arrive second-to-last at the finishing line.
The Grand Mediocre Champion was a mousetrap-themed vehicle called Eek!
Saturday morning, racers gathered with their contraptions at the American Visionary Art Museum in Federal Hill, which hosts the event, to get ready and assess their chances. The teams were a mix of returning veterans and new entrants, some with finely tuned craft, others hoping to wing it.
Andrew Seiffert said his team was back after competing many times in the past. They were running a modified version of "Loose Cannon," a giant cannon sculpture mounted on 12-foot wheels that won last year's people's choice award.
"Over time you start to learn what the tricks of the trade are," Seiffert said.
His top tip was to keep it simple, but the cannon also had some clever engineering backing it up. The wheels, built by the team, featured pool floats as spokes for extra buoyancy, and the hull of the vehicle made from a boat.
"This is definitely the most sophisticated thing we've built," Seiffert said.
A few yards away, the team behind Tricyclotops — a dinosaur with a giant front wheel — was just hoping to get off the starting grid this year. They broke down after just 12 feet last time.
"We're totally re-engineered," team member Chester Stacy said. "If we can make it 13 feet, we're successful."
From the Visionary Art Museum, the sculpture-mobiles head along Key Highway before taking on a climb to the top of Federal Hill Park, where they glide (hopefully) along against the downtown skyline, before dipping down into the neighborhood and heading for the water-dunk.
There are rules in the race, and a team of judges monitors the course, but bribing them is encouraged.
In Canton, Del. Luke H. Clippinger, also a judge in the race, was wandering around in wig and robes and watching carefully as the vehicles struggled out of the water.
"It's my happiest day of the year," he said. "I love this part of my job."