Island crab racing: The crawl of the wild

Meet the racing crabs of the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Thomas.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

What do you feed a racing champion?

"Little children," Da Crab Mon says.

Meet Ted Scheer, a jack-of-all-trades, master of some (specifically, being a handyman and gardener) and the longtime ringleader and keeper of the racing crabs of the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Thomas.

This is not quite the sport of king crabs, though. These are hermits, some the size of an adult's fist, others barely larger than a thimble, and they all carry their homes on their backs as they scuttle toward the finish line.

Scheer, a Wisconsin native who moved to St. John more than 20 years ago, collects the crabs on the islands -- the best time to go harvesting, he says, is just before a storm, because "nature's barometers" climb trees to avoid the rain -- and returns them to the wild after the prizes have been awarded.

At the Westin St. John, crabs race on the beach near the resort's pool. Scheer makes the racetrack with his foot, drawing concentric circles in the sand. A spot in the center is the starting line.

His 10-year-old daughter, Marina, is a crab racing pro. She helps a racing novice choose an active specimen with long legs. We dub the choice "Speedy." Other guests, both children and adults, make their picks. One boy names his Spider-Man, but we're on the islands, so Scheer rechristens the crab Spider-Mon. The crustaceans are plunked into a five-gallon bucket, which is then upended in the circle's center.

And they're off!

Scheer encourages spectators to call out to their just-named crabs (they are "sound-sensitive -- the more you scream and holler for your crab, the faster it's going to go," he says), but foot-stomping and other physical action is off-limits. As one crab breaks from the pack and crawls through the sand to the outermost ring, Scheer picks it up.

Living up to its name: Speedy! (Thanks, Marina, for the tip.) The prize was a day sail for one, which we donated to newlywed friends. Other possible loot: sunset sails, kayaking trips, guided Snuba (a combo of snorkeling and scuba), gift certificates for St. John businesses and coupons for the Westin. Many of the offshore adventures are donated by Cruz Bay Watersports.

Later in the day, Scheer packs up his bucket and downsizes the show for a competition that fits atop a bar counter. For almost a year, Sunday nights in St. Thomas have meant crab races at Molly Molone's restaurant in Red Hook.

The vibe is different, and the prize is bragging rights, plus a drink on the house. People pay $1 each for a pre-named crab, and Scheer sets the racers on a soft surface ringed by a wire-mesh cylinder. The crabs at Molly Molone's scale the heights (about two feet), and the winner is determined when its shell points upside down as it starts its descent on the other side. (Scheer recalls one race in which crabs fought for rights to a shell, and the fastest one crossed the finish line -- without a shell. The person who picked that one didn't win; the race is decided by the placement of shell, not crab pincers.)

On St. Croix, a husband-and-wife team runs races, usually on a track of circles drawn in chalk on a cement surface. Evan Rikhye, 38, a Capitol Hill resident turned islander, says prizes include bottles of rum and gift certificates to local shops and restaurants.

What to do after a crab race? Why, wait for the next one to begin. Scheer says he hopes to set up a Web site to allow virtual races, with winnings to be claimed when one arrives in the Virgin Islands.

"I test all the prizes to make sure they're all right," he says.

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