By Chris O'Donnell
---- — It’s been six years since the Pirates of the Merrimack won the Bed Race in a record 1:02, and like every year since, Newburyport resident Hans Schonemann hears the threats that the record will be broken.
“This is the year, Schonemann. Enjoy it, because on Thursday, you’re going down. Guaranteed. You got lucky and you know it.”
Schonemann, who formed the Pirates, smirks and shrugs his shoulders. The threats and taunts, mostly from his friend and neighbor Kevin Winn, have become a ritual this time of year. Winn calls himself the team captain of Simply Sweet Bed Racing Team, and has won the Bed Race four years.
Team Simply Sweet is, simply, the Celtics, the Yankees, the Manchester United of the Bed Race world.
“Most teams go for speed or a theme,” Winn said. “We’ve won both categories.”
Most folks enter the Bed Race to promote community groups, local businesses or raise awareness. It is a unique race, at times nervy for spectator and competitor, and the staple of Yankee Homecoming Thursday that draws hundreds to line both sides of Federal Street.
The event, sponsored by the Newburyport Lions Club, has gone from six beds in 2004 to 26 in 2012. All the proceeds go to the Lions Club charities such as eyeglasses for the needy and its annual Thanksgiving dinner for the less fortunate.
Very few groups enter the Bed Race for competitive fun. So when Schonemann’s Pirates set the Bed Race record in 2007, their only appearance, it did not go over well with the competitive folks. And, Schonemann likes to point out, he entered the bed race on a false pretense.
“Every year we’d walk up to the parade,” Schonemann said. “And every year I’d see Kevin Winn on a float. I just assumed you had to win the Bed Race to get into the parade.”
A challenge accepted
Schonemann and friend Paul Olson were at the Newburyport High 20-year reunion in 2006, the Friday of Yankee Homecoming, engaged in conversation with classmate Mark Doyle. Doyle, Winn’s brother-in-law, was a member of Winn’s Simply Sweet team that had won the previous day in a record time of 1:08.
“I was congratulating Mark on winning, when Paul started saying he was going to beat him next year,” Schonemann recalls. “I wanted to win it too, only because I wanted (daughters) Isabel, Emma and Adelaide to be in the parade.”
Schonemann took it as a mission and was tasked with three things over the next year: building a proper bed, assembling a team and adopting a theme. The theme was easy: The Pirates of the Caribbean series was all the rage and very popular among his daughters.
Schonemann makes his living as a chemical engineer and is more intelligent than 95 percent of the population. Building an aerodynamic, made-for-speed pirate ship with a bed by the following summer would be an afterthought. There were also pirate costumes to think about and, of course, an obligatory flag with the skull and crossbones.
Assembling a team was another story. The bickering, dissension, behind-the-back whispers came in a whirlwind. We need this guy. I want that guy. No, he’s too slow. Not athletic enough.
After quite a bit of haggling, their team was solidified: Schonemann and Olson; Chris Heline, a regular in local triathlons; Jake Vartabedian and Pat Ward, all 30-something veterans of the local basketball leagues.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Olson pulled out with an injury. Schonemann recruited Matt Langis, also among the basketball crew, who used to run a 52-second 400-meter dash at NHS.
They even endured trial runs in the empty lots of the industrial park and lengthy sprints at Fuller Field.
“It was really bad at first,” Schonemann said. “The front wheels weren’t aligned, so I had some adjusting to do. We needed two pushers in the front and three in the back. We knew the time to beat was 1:08, and we weren’t even close to that.”
A wheel alignment was just part of what the Pirates had to endure. Traditionally, Simply Sweet, well, was simply overwhelming, having won the title twice prior.
“We had a lot of people telling us we couldn’t win,” said Vartabedian.
Twenty-four hours before race day at a basketball game, Schonemann still had no rider, which was a requirement. He approached Gary Davis, a local attorney in the basketball crew: Be at the top of Federal Street at 6 on Thursday. It was not a request.
“I did say that if he couldn’t find anyone else, I would do it,” Davis said. “I did wonder what I was getting myself into.”
Twenty-four hours later, Davis, the swashbuckling, flag-waving commandeer, would become the face of the Pirates of the Merrimack.
A rivalry sustained
There are rivalries in every sport: Sox-Yankees, Bruins-Canadiens, Packers-Bears. At the Bed Race, it is still Pirates of the Merrimack-Simply Sweet, even six years later.
That the record has eluded Simply Sweet gnaws at Winn. He wastes no opportunity to remind Schonemann, in any conversation, he will own the record again.
Winn unabashedly calls Simply Sweet the elite bed racing team.
“Simply Sweet has more first-place finishes than any other team,” he said. “We’ve got four times as many wins as they do. But those guys did a one-and-done and got the record, so it’s killing me.”
Winn has recruited members of the Amesbury High baseball team, track and field athletes from both Amesbury and Newburyport. Even NHS football players, to no avail. His teams have been agonizingly close: It came one second shy on 2010 and two seconds short in 2008 and 2011.
Seemingly, 1:02 has been as elusive as the High Street Mile mark of 4:03.
“I’ve been going back every year, telling myself I’m going to win it back,” said Winn. “I’ve done everything I can. I’ve built every kind of bed. I’ve gotten people to run and I still haven’t won it back yet.”
“My goal in life is the get that record back.”
Gamesmanship at the Starting Line
At race time, temperatures well into the 90s, Schonemann cased the talent. There was the Winner’s Circle team, made up of veteran road runners who looked like four-minute milers; an athletic-looking group that called itself Talladega Nights; and of course perennial champion Simply Sweet.
Winn, whose team was focusing on theme, was also sizing up the competition and was unimpressed with the Pirates.
“I didn’t even look at them as a threat because they had no swivel wheels,” Winn said. “I counted them out at the beginning.”
Four fixed wheels, no swivels, Schonemann said, was the key.
“Swivel wheels wobble when they go too fast,” he said. “I aligned four fixed wheels to the exact millimeter.”
Said Vartabedian, “Our bed was a milestone for German engineering.”
It was at the starting line, seconds before the gun, that Winn dropped a bombshell.
“So there I am at the starting line, and Kevin tells me that anyone can enter the parade,” Schonemann said. “I always assumed we had to win the race. It actually took a little of the pressure off.”
‘I had nothing left’
The photo of the “Pirates of the Merrimack” that ran in the next day’s Daily News was worth 1,000 words: the five pushers overwhelmed with exhaustion and the flag-wielding Davis, the 11th-hour addition, on top.
“I was just hanging on,” said Schonemann. “I had nothing left.”
Langis: “About three-quarters the way down, I thought we were going into the crowd. We didn’t know where the finish line was, and all I could hear was Gary yelling, ‘Keep going, keep going!’”
Heline: “I was just hoping the finish line came before we crashed.”
Ward: “The picture captured it well. All of us were wondering, ‘How are we going to stop this thing?’”
Vartabedian: “It was like the Flintstones. I was hoping my feet would keep up.”
Davis had cause for worry.
“I could see by the looks on their faces that they were all in,” Davis said. “I was concerned about how this bed was going to come to a halt. And it occurred to me that that was the least of their concerns.”
The Pirates crossed the finish line without incident, and Schonemann quickly stalked the timekeepers as each bed crossed. Talladega Nights in 1:06, Natural High Fitness in 1:11, Fish Plum Island in 1:12.
Schonemann noticed people around his bed, studying the wheels, the design. Some even took photos. It was an inkling the Pirates had done something special.
The next day’s Daily News headline screamed: Pirates sail away with first place.
Adding to the legend, the bed no longer exists.
“It’s been disassembled, retired,” Schonemann said. “The parts have been thrown away.”
An exhaustive search on Google images for Schonemann’s bed proved fruitless.
Asked if the Pirates of the Merrimack will ever return, he cannot suppress a grin. “Why? What’s the point?”