All Aboard for a Crazy Cardboard Boat Race

The crew of Duff Diver III row their cardboard 6-pack past the crowd of 20,000 at the Watkins Glen Waterfront Festival in June 2006.

If you’re looking for a fun and unique way to spend a June day, bring a cooler and a lawn chair to the southern tip of Seneca Lake on June 16 for the 13th Annual Watkins Glen Waterfront Festival and Cardboard Boat Regatta.

Though the event includes music, food and vendors, the annual highlight is the Cardboard Boat Regatta. It kicks off with a parade of boats at noon, followed by the race at 2 p.m.

Some of the sailors carry their boats by hand, others borrow a trailer or a truck from a friend. The festive parade winds its way from 3rd Street down to the lakefront, showing off the boats and their costumed crews, often including taped music, singing, chanting, and candy-throwing. In 2006, one cardboard boat was transported by an all-cardboard trailer. It’s a colorful, crazy concoction that proceeds north along State Route 14, while traffic continues in the southbound lane. I can only imagine what those travelers must be thinking!

The boats, made only out of cardboard and duct tape, will amaze you, the costumes will amuse you, and you’ll take bets with your friends whether each boat – loaded with anywhere from 1 to 30 passengers – will cross the finish line.

It’s as fun as a fireworks show; you’ll “ooh” and “ah” at the construction and the paint themes as you walk around and check out the boats pre-race. “What is it made out of?” “How many people are rowing?”

“Where’d you come up with the theme?” are common questions. Judges roam from boat to boat, team to team, checking for rule-breakers, safety precautions (every paddler must wear a safety vest), and picking the winners in a laundry list of categories awarded at the end of the day. Awards include Best Looking, Best Construction, Goodies Headache, and Titanic Sinking.

Live bands and radio DJs play in the background between the parade and race. Spectators grab lunch from a variety of food vendors, shop from craft vendors, take on the rock-climbing wall, get their faces painted, and secure an ideal viewing spot.

The water can be as cold as 40 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the spring weather. I can tell you from experience the year my duck-themed boat sank right at the finish line – that water takes your breath away! Once the boats load into the water, the crowd cheers them on as they furiously row around the docked boats and piers to the finish line. “Whoa” the crowd will moan as a boat tips to one side or another, and “Aw” when a boat collapses into the water and turns into a heavy, wet lump of corrugated brown paper.

The loud speaker-broadcast play-by-play tells you what’s happening at each turn, as if you were at the NASCAR races up the road at Watkins Glen International. This boat is struggling. That boat is going sideways and rammed into a powerboat parked at the pier. This boat is shooting water at its competition. That boat is taking on water. Who’s in the lead? Who’s on the starting line? Who lost his paddle? Who just jumped out of his boat and is swimming for shore?

Safety crews in kayaks and on jet skis assist stragglers and pull out those whose ship has sunk. But it’s all in fun – and mayhem – and smiles are seen on the faces of all ages, both in the water and on the shore. There’s lots of cheering and applause, picture taking, jumping up and down. In 2006, thousands of spectators lined the shore, pier and breakwall at Seneca Harbor Park, where we saw boats resembling a hypodermic needle (a hospital entry), a school bus, a dragon, a whale, a battleship, and the very impressive Noah’s Ark. In past years, I remember a frying pan entry that had a hard time going forward due to its circular design, cow boats, pig boats, race cars, and the amazing and legendary pirate ship of Weyerhaeuser Company, now a festival sponsor.

In 2006, “4 Frogs and a Tadpole” lined up at the start with five miniature “boats” tied together, but made a quick-change decision to unhook and go it alone. As several mini-boats sunk near the finish line, others spun in circles while their reclining captains tried to row.

We saw hobos, hula girls, ducks, football players, the Blues Brothers, and Watkins Glen teachers, calling themselves “School of Sharks” and wearing cardboard shark hats. We even saw politicians literally launching their campaigns in cardboard. Hats, costumes, music, your beverage of choice, and a clever name are all must-haves on the most popular of boats.

Boats are built by people from age 10 to adult, with groups including schools, friends and coworkers, civic organizations, scouts, and more. Some build out of curiosity – I can build a better boat than them! For others, it’s pride, upholding their reputation from a previous year’s race. Some do it for publicity, like Watkins Glen State Park’s fastest time “Mini Ha Ha” cardboard canoe, built to spread the word of the Park’s 100th anniversary. Others do it for team-building, like the county employees’ entry, “SS Schuyler.”

The biggest and rowdiest boat of 2006, the Exxon Valdez, which actually made it to the finish line and did not spill its nearly 30 passengers, then rowed its way north on Seneca Lake toward the Anchor Inn & Marina’s Tiki Bar for an annual post-race celebration.

While some boats are months in the making, others are literally taped together the night before. Cardboard is typically collected from appliance and furniture stores; bigger pieces require less duct tape. Boats may be square like a box, single hull or multi-hull. Some have pontoons made out of either boxes or the very buoyant, but very heavy, carpet tubes. (Carpet tubes do add buoyancy, but are also very heavy to carry from the trailer to staging area to the race and then back out of the water. Again, I speak from experience – our “cow” had six tubes and required us soliciting extra volunteers to lug around!). As for duct tape, if you’re paranoid about your boat sinking, as I was in my first few go-rounds, you could use 10 rolls of duct tape or more to cover any open areas, folds, splices.

What comes first, a theme or a name? Well, it all depends on who’s building and designing the boat. I suspect that some names may even be created the morning of the race!

In all, over 40 boats entered the 2006 race, paddling two by two from one end of the harbor to the other. The Watkins Glen Waterfront Festival may not be the biggest cardboard boat race in the world (I believe I read about a “World Championships” in the Midwest somewhere), but it is in a beautiful location and tremendously entertaining.

You can watch a 4-minute video showing highlights of the 2006 event at www.4utraining.com/demos/regatta06/ msh.htm.

For information on the festival, which adds a second day of entertainment on June 15 in 2007, go to www.watkinsglen.com/festival/.


by Michelle R. LaDue