Starting the race off with a mighty cannon blast is a tradition that has been kept by the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon (OMTOM) for some years now. As thousands of runners gather at the start of the world’s most beautiful marathon, the height of all their excitement and preparation is materialised with one loud boom of a cannon.
Martin Venter is a former member of the South Africa Marine Corps with 30 years of service to his name - but now he has the honour of starting the OMTOM Half Marathon. “In total, I fire three individual shots to start each batch of the Half Marathon"
Venter received his call up from the OMTOM four years ago, and explains the intricacies involved when it comes to cannon safety.
“The set up takes place at about 4am and then we wait for the countdown, because the roads are closed and we cannot get in, that's why we're there so early. But that is no problem at all, as this allows us to prepare safely for the start.”
To settle the curious minds of many OMTOM fans and athletes, Venter confirms that no real cannon balls are used for the event. “We make use of blank firing! We measure only 30g of black powder and pack it into tin foil, because tin foil doesn’t burn. So it just explodes out of the cannon and makes a nice, big poof - after which we can clean up the mess.”
To the ear, Venter’s gun sounds as though it could be a sizable tool of warfare. Yet, it’s a remarkably small cannon - a quarter pounder to be exact (though slightly bigger than the famous burger), and that means it is nimble enough be packed up and transported neatly in the back of his car. But it isn’t as simple as that, says the navy veteran.
“You must have a permit to have something even as small as this in your possession, and then an additional one to fire it. I also hold a competency certificate which the Cannon Association issues. Currently, I am the chairman of the association and we make people attend a course while you must also have a black-powder firearm competency certificate from an accredited institution.
"As an association, we will train you, and it takes about two years to become a gunner, mainly because of the safety concerns attached, the big one being the safety of the public. So there are a lot of legalities involved.”
With the OMTOM, all the right steps are taken in accordance to the law when it comes to firing this little-big cannon. “When we do a firing, we have to inform the SAPS explosives division.They will come around and check all of your permits and accreditations as well as checking the cannons and the black power,” says Venter.
After all the fine print, permits and training that a gunner must go through to fire a cannon, Venter enjoys every opportunity he gets to fire off a round or two, no matter the occasion.
“This cannon is used for many events like weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and even when a child is born, so absolutely anything. I mark the opening of the sailing season and start other races here in Simon's Town. As for the OMTOM, I absolutely love it. The race has a very special vibe to it. You can really feel the energy build when the runners gather at the start, it’s like being present at a big sports game. When you are actually there, everything is just buzzing - it’s amazing, I love it and I’m very happy to play a part in it.”