By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
“We’re going to the cardboard kayak races this weekend, right?” Vlad said, looking at me expectantly. I glanced back dubiously.
We’d missed the 2013 race, the first year that the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance had organized the race as part of its City of Water Day, but we’d thoroughly enjoyed the video. Last year, I’d provided kayak safety support for the race, while Vlad took photos. And we wrote it up on Wind Against Current.
As much fun as the race had been, did we really need to experience it again?
Yes, we did! So last Saturday we headed out to Governors Island, on a sultry summer day that started out reasonably comfortable, but promised heat and stickiness by the afternoon.
If you missed our previous post, the premise is simple. Each team is provided with the raw materials: Cardboard and tape. The teams have two hours to design and assemble a cardboard boat. Then they race against each others in a series of heats, with the winners of each heat facing off against each other in the final. The race is held at Governors Island, with the Manhattan skyline providing an impressive backdrop.
Half the challenge is designing a boat that is rigid and stable enough and doesn’t get waterlogged. The best-looking design on land is all for naught if the boat collapses and sinks—which often happens as soon as it’s put into the water.
The other half is paddling skill. All other things being equal, good paddlers have an edge over those who aren’t as skilled.
Since the races favor both engineering talent and paddling skill, the teams that do best tend to be engineering schools, whose students are both talented designers and (often) solid athletes. Unsurprisingly, the Stevens Institute of Technology won the race both years so far. Last year, they narrowly beat out a well-designed craft paddled by veteran paddlers from the North Brooklyn Boat Club (NBBC).
So we were eager to find out: Who would compete this year? What novel designs might show up? And would Stevens win again?
This year featured a stunningly diverse lineup. There were teams from two different engineering firms. A group from Brazil. The Coast Guard. Our past favorites from North Brooklyn Boat Club. And Stevens, of course.
And a group that immediately won our hearts: A family on vacation from Canada, five teenage kids and two parents.
I’d started chatting with the mother during the construction phase, after observing that the team was (wisely) covering its boat with tape. As Vlad observed last year, waterproofing is essential: the winning design needs to be a tape boat, with cardboard support.
It turned out that the entire experience was a total surprise to the kids: The parents had woken them up in the hotel that morning and told them to wear swimsuits. “What are we doing today?” the kids asked. “We’re going to build and race a cardboard kayak,” the parents replied.
This approach was part of a longstanding tradition, the mother explained. They like to go on family adventures—and to keep the kids on their toes, the parents don’t tell them where they are going, or for how long.
What a brilliant idea! I loved the idea, and the spirit of adventure it signified. So I made a note to root for “Family Adventure, Eh!” as the team called itself.
Another thing that was a bit different this year: The whimsy that went into the designs. The Coast Guard, rather ironically, boasted cardboard pirate hats. The Brazilian team had, for their own inscrutable reasons, an inflatable giraffe in the bow. (The race organizers conferred and decided that the giraffe was permitted—so long as it did not serve as a floatation device, or assist in the paddling.) The Canadians wore red and white hats with a maple leaf ribbon. And another boat was decorated with bananas and feathers.
What happened? Did Stevens win? Well, there were five heats total, and then the final race. The Stevens team arrived for the first heat striding proudly, to the tune of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”. Against them was arrayed a diverse group of competitors including the pirate-hatted Coast Guard and our favored Canadians.
Stevens won its heat handily, but the Coast Guard, another favorite, did not (maybe it was the air resistance from the hats?).
The Canadians? You’ll have to look at the photos to see how they fared.
The other heats yielded some intriguing surprises.
The banana-and-feather team won their heat. A dark-horse winner was the Long River Tai Chi team, paddled by a man-and-woman combination. I was rooting for them, in part because I’ve recently discovered Tai Chi, but also because they had the best cheering section: Vlad and I were standing next to a group of young girls (around 10 years old), who shrieked at the top of their lungs for their team. (In case you were unaware, young girls have very powerful lungs.)
Our favorites from last year, the North Brooklyn Boat Club, were back, in a sturdy craft similar to that in which they almost won last year. Watching them maneuver their craft, we figured NBBC had a real chance at beating Stevens again this year.
And the most surprising entry was a sleek, beautiful craft with an enigmatic smiley face on its stern deck, manned by two young Asian men, that cruised to victory in its heat easily, while remaining almost perfectly dry. We didn’t catch the team name, but everyone was intrigued with the beauty and elegance of the design.
Finally it was time for the final. Against Stevens was arrayed the Long River Tai Chi boat (which was looking unfortunately waterlogged), the NBBC, bananas-and-feathers, and the mystery craft.
The race quickly broke into two clusters: Stevens, NBBC, and the mystery craft, which battled it out for first place, and the bedraggled Long River Tai Chi and bananas-and-feathers, both of which were somewhat the worse for wear.
For a few tense seconds, it seemed possible that Stevens might be dethroned by either the mystery boat or NBBC. But that possibility vanished when mystery boat collided with NBBC, giving Stevens a solid lead.
So the Stevens team coasted to victory once again—congratulations, guys! NBBC missed again, by a hair (but there’s always next year). And we hope to see more of the mystery boat.
One of the Canadians summed it up best, right before the race: “If we win—hilarious! And if we just manage to finish—hilarious! And if the boat collapses—also hilarious!”
He said it.
Here are more photos from the day. Click on any photo to start slideshow.