Now in it’s eighth year, the annual Cardboard Boat Regatta can rightly be called a Sweet Briar tradition. It’s been part of Homecoming Weekend since there was a Homecoming Weekend, and it’s as old as the engineering program that sponsors it.
Students in the introductory class “Designing our World” get three short weeks to design and build boats capable of carrying two of their team members through an arduous course using nothing more than corrugated cardboard and duct tape. Each is judged on speed, buoyancy and overall design. This year they raced on Oct. 15 before an expectant Homecoming and Families Weekend crowd.
You could also say it is traditional that at least a couple of the inherently tippy, absorbent craft will sink before completing the course, some within seconds of launch. And the fact that this year not one of the six boats returned to the dock even marginally intact is not unprecedented — nor is it the norm.
The Destroyer, piloted by Hannah Bowers ’15 and Alison Hornbaker ’15, came the closest, coming within about 30 yards of the finish. Alas, the chilly waters of the Lower Lake swallowed it whole, the hapless paddlers going down with ship.
“None of the teams were tested for buoyancy since we ended up with soggy piles of cardboard,” said assistant engineering professor Bethany Brinkman, who teaches the class.
So it was that the always colorful John Morrissey, a marine biologist moonlighting as the race caller, had more than the usual fodder for his vivid commentary. Observing the nearly instant disintegration of The Facebook Status when its crew plopped into the waterborne paper tub, he said, “You can see one team designed the boat to disarticulate as rapidly as possible.”
It wasn’t alone. Variations on a double pontoon design abounded — a strategy that won last year but failed to hold up in 2011. One behemoth looked quite sturdy but the top collapsed and it broke apart, one pontoon joining the wreckage of similarly fated craft drifting on the lake.
Two such boats, the Redneck Party Boat and Piratical Sum of Infinity, were too unstable to handle the pilots, tipping them sideways every time they tried to board. Half of the Party Boat separated and bobbed off in the cool October breeze, the words “Ain’t It Purty” scrawled across its backside.
In the end it was a swimming heat for second-to-last place with two teams pushing or towing the remains of their work. The Partiers won it by a second, but only after a Herculean effort by first-years Rosie Purvis and Kate Fanta of Piratical Sum of Infinity to catch up after a late start — and numerous dogged but futile attempts to embark the proper way.
The Destroyer was the overall winner and it’s relative longevity atop the water at one point prompted Morrissey to quip, “In case you hadn’t noticed, one boat is actually afloat.” That was somewhere around the time he pointed out the safety canoe that circled the action in case anyone got into real trouble.
“Notice,” he said, “how much better fiberglass is than cardboard.”