In case you didn’t know it, a cardboard boat can float.
Some 85 high school students did their best to prove that Friday morning at Bettendorf’s Middle Park Lagoon. It was the seventh annual — and some said the windiest — Cardboard Boat Regatta. The wind blew more than a few boats off-course as the teens paddled furiously out and around the island in the middle of the water and back to the dock.
The Quad-City Engineering and Science Council oversees the race. It supports science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, studies and careers. Building a cardboard boat is considered a “real-world example,” and like all such examples, some float, some sink.
“You can see today that if you don’t waterproof your structure and make it stable, the water and the wind can be a great teacher,” council engineer Pat Barnes said. “But if you design your boat correctly, they can work pretty well.”
Students from Pleasant Valley and Bettendorf will receive grades for their efforts from their engineering teachers. Others, from Moline, Durant, Iowa, and Rock Island Alleman high schools were competing as well, for both awards and points toward a traveling trophy.
Professional engineers from Deere & Co., Alcoa and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspected and judged the boats. There are many rules involved, including the fact that the boats must be made solely of cardboard, although adhesives such as insulating foam can be used to seal joints and connect the cardboard. And they have to stay afloat for about 600 yards.
Two girls from Moline High School named their boat “Seas The Day.” They built the sides high to keep water out, but not only did that give the wind more cardboard to catch, it also made it difficult for their paddles to reach the water.
“In the beginning, we were just happy we were floating,” Cassandra McKee said. “I don’t care what our time was because I’m just glad we made it!”
Most boats had teams of two, but Tyler Wise of Pleasant Valley sped around the lagoon by himself in a boat resembling an open kayak.
“It was sturdier because I used double-thick cardboard,” he explained. “I took corners from a refrigerator box, which helped it a lot, making it so the sides wouldn't cave in and fold in half.”
One team’s paddle handle broke, so the student just used the flat part to help bring the boat to shore.
“Sometimes they forget to waterproof the paddles and that makes it a little rough,” Barnes said.
Pleasant Valley‘s Gabe Johnson admitted that his paddle had a design flaw.
“We cut holes in it to grab it better, but that didn't help the structural integrity. And we didn't seal the ends very well, so water came in right away.”
The good news is that the lagoon is only a few feet deep.
“We didn't water-seal or paint the boat,” Reese Oldenburg of Moline lamented. “We initially found that the water seal tears off the adhesive, but we should have painted it.”
Tyler Oberman and Abhishek Gurran of Pleasant Valley sealed their boat with several coats of outdoor paint both inside and out. They also added cardboard tubing for better support and stability.
“The boat was too long to turn well,” Oberman later admitted, “and the bottom wasn’t thick enough, so we took on water.”
The Bootleggers of Moline High added some style with extra cardboard inside for “cup holders,” but they realized afterwards that doing so was a mistake because the boat was too heavy to paddle quickly.
The race was also a great lesson for future engineer Brandon Dang of Moline.
“The buoyancy was good, but since it was so high off the water, our balance wasn’t as good as it could have been, which is why it tipped,” he muttered.
While most were shaped like boats, one entry used the pontoon and outrigger approach, with cardboard tubes for better balance. The paddlers sat on top of it, and there was no place to take on water.
Twenty boats finished, with Bettendorf High entries sweeping the awards. Marky Mark & The Funky Boat was first in a blazing 2 minutes and 49 seconds. The U.S.S. Poseidon was second at 3:51 and won the Most Innovative Design Award, with Anitta Ship coming in third at 4:13.
The average speed for the other 17 was 6:42. Fifteen others did not finish, and one boat was disqualified because duct tape was used to reinforce the bottom instead of just strengthening the joints.