Sunday, August 27, 2006

How To Build a Boat

A few weeks ago, we and another family met together to plan a Cardboard Canoe Regatta. Participants would have two hours to build a canoe entirely out of cardboard and duct tape and then would then compete against other participants for speed and endurance. We drew up a set of rules, chose a date and a location, and then hoped for good weather.

We had no idea how many people would choose to participate. Such events are usually sponsored by youth groups and university engineering departments, but when the day of the event came, we had 7 boats in the Regatta, a very workable number.

We collected a whole bunch of cardboard from a local bike shop, who conveniently held a big sale at that time and so had a lot of cardboard to get rid of. We also had several cartons from some kitchen cabinets. It was quite a pile. It was enough to allow the boys to build and test a prototype canoe a week before the event.

The boys completed their prototype in about two hours and they used every bit of duct tape we had laying around, about a roll and a half. We found out then that all duct tape is not created equal. One partial roll had adhesive about as strong as sticky notes, and would come off as soon as it was applied. They had to reinforce that with some clear packing tape (we can bend the rules when building prototypes).

The prototype performed well, lasting for just over ten minutes. Joshua's end of the boat sank first, after he slowly sank through the sodden cardboard. The boys paddled nearly all the way across the lake at 8th Avenue Park before the boat sank. What a blast. They laughed all the way across the lake.

But 10 minutes was not long enough. They learned that another team built a boat that lasted for 15 minutes. This was the new target.

When the day of the Regatta came, the boys applied what they had learned to their new boat. The made the new boat larger and stronger, and they had two fresh rolls of duct tape, which stuck well and stayed in place.

The boat building time was a flurry of activity, with the pavilion at the park littered with cardboard and busy boat-builders. It was interesting to see all the various design approaches, from precision measuring, cutting, and fitting to slap it together and tape it in place.

Two rolls of duct tape turned out to be quite a bit, and a couple careful boat building teams were able to have enough left over to coat the entire bottom of the boat with tape. This could be a long contest.

The park was practically deserted except for our group, and a local police officer who was patrolling the area expressed surprise at this. He said this park is usually crowded on a summer Saturday.

After the building was done, it was time to launch the boats. We set out a couple milk-jug buoys and instructed the boaters that the first around the buoys and back to shore would win the speed award.

At the starting signal, all seven boats splashed into the water. One sank immediately, the weight of its occupants bursting out the back. The others splashed toward the first buoy.

Josh and David, in the SS Minnow II, pulled ahead right away and made it back to shore in three minutes. I'm not sure if it was the design of the boat or the furious paddling or both that contributed to their speed, but it was a no-contest race.

Over the next half hour, three more boats sank. The SS Tadpole, piloted by our women's team, started to collapse and then capsized, dumping them into the water. They completed the course around the buoys by swimming, towing their wreckage behind them. Another creation took over twenty minutes to sink, and it sank very slowly, probably due the sheer volume of cardboard used in its construction.

After a half hour, there were three boats left: The SS Minnow II, the Endurance, and the Flying Dutchman. Since we were getting hungry by this time, and pizza had been ordered, we opened the contest up to aggression. The boats came quickly together and with a furious splashing of water and people leaping onto other people's boats, all three boats were down within 30 seconds. The Endurance went down last, just a few seconds after the SS Minnow II, and so earned the Endurance Award.

The event ended with an informal awards ceremony where the Shackleton Award (Endurance) and the Amundsen Award (Speed) were handed out. These were trophies made of ... you guessed it ... cardboard and duct tape. It only seemed appropriate.

This was one of those events that will probably warrant a repeat performance; we'll probably do it again next year.