It was a frigid December day when the original Marc (Dezi) Desautels Memorial Blue Knuckle Derby took place.
On Dec. 27, 1992, a group of young men were looking for a way to have some fun as the holiday season was winding down. They decided that a friendly fishing contest would be a good way to spend the day.
“You’d have family come into town and Christmas was busy and boxing day was busy so we decided to have it on the 27th,” said Ken Hembling, who organized the original contest along with Jim Robertson. “We thought it would be something to do after you fill up on turkey dinner.”
A dozen or so men met and went out in their boats to see who could bring in the biggest salmon, each of them throwing in $20 to keep things interesting. Robertson eventually emerged victorious with a nine pound spring salmon, pocketing $130 and bragging rights.
“It wasn’t that big,” he said. “But it was a fish.”
Robertson said they decided to call the competition the Blue Knuckle Derby because of the chilly weather.
“Your hands get pretty blue if you’re out there in an open skiff all day,” he said.
Robertson said the next year 50 people came out to take part in the contest, and even more followed the year after that. Before long, he and Hembling were going to local businesses to gather more prizes as the contest became more of an event.
“It started off small and then it kind of grew,” said Hembling. “You’d be up on Christmas day and people would be calling to buy a ticket”
Hembling said they had to host the awards and prize ceremonies at different establishments in Prince Rupert as the derby grew in popularity.
“We’d fill up Breakers, Solly’s, The Belmont and the Moby Dick,” Hembling said.
Robertson and Hembling played the roll of gregarious hosts at the ceremonies, and were gifted free shooters from the fishermen in the audience for their efforts. Handing out the awards, prizes and draws sometimes took three hours due to the number of items donated to give out. Robertson said that he would inevitably get drunk.
“It was always a really fun time,” he said. “Ken Hembling always got drunker than me though.”
By the time the two of them stepped away from the derby 13 years after they first went out, the event was selling 350 tickets.
In the years since that original group went out, the derby has grown into one of the premier events in Prince Rupert. Marc “Dezi” Desautels took over the event in 2005 and ran it until he passed away. It has been run by the Prince Rupert Lions Club since 2009, with the name being changed to the Dezi Memorial Blue Knuckle Derby in his honour.
Now in its 25th year, the derby continues to sell hundreds of tickets, awarding $1,200 for its first place prize and donating all of the proceeds from its ticket sales to local charities. Neither Robertson nor Hembling knew the friendly competition they started on that cold December day would grow into a vehicle to help the community, but they are happy with how it developed.
“It just kind of built on itself,” said Robertson. “I really didn’t ever think that it would get that big.”
“We decided to gamble a little bit and it just snowballed,” said Hembling.