Join the worldwide phenomenon: The 46th annual Great Cardboard Boat Regatta

Celebrating SIU’s Saluki TRADITION, Saluki PRIDE and Saluki PROMISE for SIU’s 150thAnniversary, This Is SIU is publishing a monthly feature detailing the past, present and future of notable places, events and people on campus.

Have you ever seen a massive purple monster, a shark with mouth wide open or a slice of pepperoni pizza sail across a lake? Or perhaps, you’ve watched a giant colorful tennis shoe, a spaceship or even a sleek Corvette float along a watery race course.

If so, you’ve undoubtedly experienced a cardboard boat regatta, the entertaining test of creativity and problem-solving skills that all began at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The 46th annual Great Cardboard Boat Regatta returns to SIU’s Campus Lake at 1 p.m. on Saturday and everyone’s invited.

It all began as a freshman class project

No one could have dreamed that a little class project would grow to become what it is today: one of SIU’s most recognizable and enjoyed traditions and a worldwide phenomenon. It has been viewed by millions, replicated by thousands, and continues to be a fan favorite after nearly half a century, according to Larry Busch, an SIU art and design degree program emeritus acting chair/associate professor who has been to every single regatta.

Though there was a single cardboard boat challenge in 1962, the annual race began in 1974. That year, Busch’s fellow faculty member, Richard Archer, used the unusual challenge as a final exam for his freshman dimensional design class. Busch said neither Archer nor any of the other faculty who worked with him on the regatta were aware of the 1962 boat-building project — the brainchild of Davis Pratt, design department chair — when their regatta launched.

Since creating a successful product design is about function as well as visual appeal, Archer thought building a cardboard boat that was seaworthy, fast and attractive would be a good measure of what his students had learned and how they would do developing products for consumers.

The goal was simple. Create a boat entirely of corrugated cardboard that would be able to traverse a 200-yard course. If it looked good, that was all the better. Busch said that first race was quite “primitive.”

Forty percent of the boats sunk. But, people were hooked and a tradition had begun.

Growing by leaps and bounds

It may have begun as a class project, but the Great Cardboard Boat Regatta, as Archer soon dubbed it, quickly took on a life of its own.

“People said it looked like so much fun, they wanted to do it, too,” Busch said.

By 1976 anyone could enter, and SIU threw down the gauntlet by challenging other universities to submit entries as well.

Also that year, the first of many commemorative T-shirts appeared. Student Warren Williamson designed the yellow shirt, Busch recalls. He’s proud to note that Williamson is living proof of how good SIU’s design program is; Williamson now holds about 100 patents for medical devices he has invented, Busch said.

Throughout the years, the race became more and more popular, led by various people including Busch, Larry “Skip” Briggs and Aldon Addington.

“The thing I find quite extraordinary is that I know of no other event that is so widely copied,” Busch said. “Sometimes we’ve had people question what it has to do with academia. The answer is, so much. It’s real, hands-on innovation.”

He said the event allows students who may not excel on paper to show off their creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

“It may look easy, but when you start building and trying to figure out how to make a boat out of cardboard, you’re using math, design principles and more,” he said. “And there’s this camaraderie among the competitors, too.”

Springboard to success for many

Williamson is just one of many students who have used their regatta experience and SIU education to help launch successful careers, Busch said. Many students have told him that when they include their regatta experience in their resumes, it has led to job offers.

Another student went on to success building railroads in China, despite not speaking the language or really knowing much about railroads, Busch said.

“The thing is, he had learned to solve problems and take on challenges,” Busch said.

And that’s not all. The experiences at the regatta, whether as a contestant or a spectator, are never forgotten, Busch said.

“People remember it years, even decades later.”

Creativity unbounded

If you can imagine it, someone has probably built it as a cardboard boat. A baby grand piano, Gumby, Bart Simpson, a Butterfinger bar, a smoke-blowing snake, a Beanie baby, a cowboy hat, a PT109 and a P-51 Mustang – they’ve all been entered.

Jonah’s Taxi, a whale with a functioning blow hole, was one of the 1987 entries. Some are so impressive, it’s hard to believe they are crafted from cardboard. Busch was totally awed by a 1940s vintage “Chris-craft runabout” with a “mahogany” deck.

 “One year some international students built a dragon that was just magnificent,” he remembers. “It was just unbelievable.”

In 1987, a boat with 42 people – and a dog – managed to traverse the course, albeit quite slowly, Busch recalls. The next year, the Murphysboro Hot Tub team managed to cram 58 people aboard a 400-square-foot cardboard barge. It claimed the team spirit award that year, but also led organizers to enact a 10-person limit on the boats, for safety reasons.

Ming-Parn Chou became the first to cross the finish line in a cardboard hamster wheel in 1989. The scuba club even entered a submarine one year.

Some of the participants don costumes in keeping with their boat’s theme, like a giant banana boat filled with monkeys or pirate crew piloting a big pirate ship.

Surprises are common

Despite seeing boats of all kinds for nearly 50 years, Busch admits he’s been surprised at times.  One year, a basketball player woke up on regatta day and remembered what was happening. He grabbed a cardboard box out of a trash dumpster and headed to the race. Somehow, he paddled through the complete course.

“Terrific guy, lousy boat,” Busch laughs.

Some contestants are more intent on claiming the “Titanic” award, given to the boat that sinks most dramatically.

One year, a man rigged his boat with pyrotechnics to assure a really elaborate demise, Busch recalls. Unfortunately for the contestant, the craft continued to float after detonation so he angrily jumped up and down inside, eventually falling through when the bottom dropped out. Interestingly, he didn’t win the award because another capsize was even more impressive to the crowd.

Making a point

At times, political commentary has made its way into the regatta. Four of the boats in the inaugural race were named “Expletive Deleted,” in reference to the Richard M. Nixon tapes released with curse words omitted in that era. After a tragic oil spill, a cardboard “Exxon Valdez” made its way to Campus Lake.

 Worldwide spotlight

All of this fun and excitement didn’t go unnoticed by national media or the international community. By 1986 CNN had a regatta feature story and Good Morning America’s Spencer Christian did several live regatta broadcasts from the lake in 1998. That was a notable year for the regatta in many ways. The race drew record 206 entries and a crowd of spectators estimated as high as 20,000.

Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, the Grammy award-winning Jamaican band, entertained participants and spectators at the 25th anniversary regatta.

Through the years, Armed Forces Radio Network and numerous other media zoned in on SIU’s event as well.

Entries have come from as far away as Paris and New Zealand. Thousands of universities and communities across the world have launched their own regattas.

The appeal of the regatta wasn’t necessarily a surprise to Archer. People love a good wreck, and the regatta provides plenty of chances to see dramatic, non-dangerous “wrecks” along with a really good show filled with plenty of laughter, he was quoted as saying in file stories from previous years.

Occasionally, someone forgets the rules, but that doesn’t mean that they still can’t have a good time. Several years ago, an SIU registered student organization built a rather large boat that featured a wooden substructure and cardboard-clad hull, recalls Mary Kinsel, associate scientist in the Office of Sponsored Projects Administration and faculty adviser for Alpha Chi Sigma, the organization that has coordinated the event since 2010. 

The team couldn’t officially compete, but organizers towed them to the middle of the lake where they enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the race, until their craft sprung a leak. As they baled water, they got a tow back to shore.

Popularity continues

The regatta is special for many reasons, according to Shauri Smith, a senior human physiology/pre-medicine major from Fayetteville, Tennessee.

“It’s really neat to see how it brings people together. It reaches so much of the community,” Smith said. “It’s crazy that it has been going on for so long and so many people enjoy it. It doesn’t matter what your age is or who you are, you’ve got to love it. It’s just so universal. The creativity that goes into making the boats is really something, too.”

She got involved with Alpha Chi Sigma when she arrived at SIU because she wanted to make friends, get involved in community outreach and be part of an organization that correlated with her major. She’s served as an officer and also works for the Carbondale Park District, which is now involved with the regatta as well.

Smith said it’s inspiring to see children’s groups, including kids from the Boys and Girls Club and scouting organizations, come together to make boats. She recalled that last year some children launched their boat and it almost immediately sank, but the kids were totally unfazed – just happily playing and splashing in the water.

The regatta also brings families and generations together. Smith said one of the “coolest” boats she has seen is a guitar, created by a father and his children who rode atop it to complete the entire course.

The event has outlived most of those who made it all happen; just Busch and Addington survive.

Shortly before he passed away in 2017, “Commodore Archer,” as he came to be known, was able to attend the 44th annual regatta with help from caregivers at Shawnee Christian Nursing Home. Organizers honored him with a founder’s plaque. At his memorial a few weeks later, family members noted that he spoke of the regatta and plaque often.

It’s a special year for the regatta

2019 is a special year for the Great Cardboard Boat Regatta.

In honor of SIU’s 150th anniversary, the birthday theme runs throughout this year’s event. The commemorative T-shirts include the “SIU at 150” logo as do the trophies and a commemorative microfiber towel that’s included in the swag bag participants get.

Organizers have also been working hard to strengthen campus and community relationships and increase event involvement. This year, SIU’s Office of Student Engagement is upping the ante for registered student organizations. In addition to bragging rights and the chance to win trophies, RSOs will be competing for cash prizes: $300 for the fastest RSO boat and $200 for the second fastest.

Though this is Smith’s fourth regatta, it’s the first time she’s competing as well as helping. She and her roommates are building a “naked mole rat” boat – an appropriate choice because she is quite interested in the research SIU does with the critters.

The plan is to have the creature laying on its back with the riders on the “stomach.”  She admits the construction is a bit tricky and it’s an ambitious plan. But she said that though a win is always nice, what really matters is the fun and camaraderie and she encourages everyone to get involved.

“Don’t be scared you’re going to fall in the water or you won’t do well,” Smith said. “Everyone wears life jackets and even if they can’t swim, they have fun. People help each other. It’s fun to build the boat and it’s fun to compete, even if you don’t get to the finish line.”

Anyone can enter

The race is open to people of all ages and contestants can compete individually or in teams of up to 10 people.

It happens rain or shine and the rules are pretty simple. All boats must be made of corrugated cardboard, held together with glue, caulk, tape, staples or other such materials. In one way or another, people-power must make them go. There are four competition classes:

  • Boats powered by paddles or oars.
  • Boats powered by paddle wheels, propellers, plungers or other means of muscle-powered propulsion.
  • Instant boats – made from kits available that day on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Youth boats – for children ages 13 and younger and taking place on a shortened course.

Registration and boat inspections are from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on April 27 in the area around SIU’s new Becker Pavilion, which opened just in time for the 2018 regatta.  

Paddles, oars and life jackets are provided.

Prizes for all classes

Trophies will be awarded to the winners of each division.

There will also be special awards for:

  • Most spectacular sinking, also known as the Titanic award.
  • Best use of cardboard.
  • Best team boat.

There’s still time

It’s not too late to build a boat. You can purchase a 7’ by 8’ flat sheet of corrugated cardboard for $3 at the chemistry department in the Neckers Building; call 618/453-6428 to make arrangements. You can register the day of the event; the cost is $20.

Or, plan to build boat that day with the instant boat kits available for purchase on a limited basis. You’ll have two hours and the supplies you need to make your very own boat.

To learn more

Find additional information and the complete rules (under the photos tab) on the Great Cardboard Boat Regatta Facebook page.

Participants will get a swag bag, including one commemorative “SIU at 150” boat regatta T-shirt. Extra T-shirts are available for $10 each in adult sizes.

Email Kinsel at mkinsel@siu.edu with questions.

Spectators welcome

Anyone and everyone is welcome to attend the family-friendly event. Admission is free for viewers. Bring lawn chairs or blankets and plan to have a good time.

The Carbondale Park District’s Cyclones youth swim team will be grilling and offering refreshments for purchase. In addition, Marcus Lappin of Carbondale’s Plaza Records will be providing musical entertainment.

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