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Kayakers Race Cardboard Boats at Governors Island

By Pedro Oliveira Jr | July 21, 2013 11:45am
 Teams from the US Coast Guard, Stevens Institute of Technology and Stuyvesant High School, among others, competed fiercely on Saturday, blatting down the Buttermilk Channel waters off Governors Island.
Crafty Kayakers Race in Cardboard Vessels
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GOVERNORS ISLAND — A group of crafty water lovers raced down the cool waters of the Buttermilk Channel Saturday, battling each other in a heart-pumping race for bragging rights — and cardboard engineering supremacy.

Handmade cardboard boats filled the waterway as competitors participating in Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance's Cardboard Kayak Race duked it out to see who would remain on top, and whose vessels would sink. 

Teams from the U.S. Coast Guard, Stevens Institute of Technology and Stuyvesant High School, among others, received a package with sheets of 6-foot-6 cardboard and rolls of waterproof tape at noon, and were tasked with building buoyant kayaks in two hours flat.

 Teams from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Stevens Institute of Technology reach the final line in one of the day's fiercest matches. 
Teams from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Stevens Institute of Technology reach the final line in one of the day's fiercest matches. 
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DNAinfo/Pedro Oliveira Jr.

They raced around Governors Island, cutting the cardboard sheets into shape and covering their vessels with copious amounts of tape.

Shipbuilders hurriedly added finishing touches to their kayaks as a judge counted down to zero and announced the end of the building portion of the competition through a megaphone.

Designs varied widely: One team made their kayak flat like a surfboard. A second spray-painted theirs yellow to look like a cab, while another team reached back to ancient history for inspiration.

“Our boat is based on Phoenician designs,” bragged Jens Rasmussen, 43, of the North Brooklyn Boat Club. “The Phoenicians used papyrus reed bundles to make their flotation — we’ve used rolled up cardboard sealed with tape.

“Up on top we have an awning that holds our dragon god Fire Boy,” he joked, showing off a cutout depiction of the scaly mythical creature. “The dragon is there to destroy all the other boats coming our way.”

The kayak race, a first for the festival, headlined a series of events happening throughout the five boroughs as part of the sixth annual City of Water Day.

“Events like these are fun and they open people’s minds to what enjoying the waterfront can be like,” said Roland Lewis, executive director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a consortium of about 730 civic groups and businesses working to make the city’s waterways more accessible and revitalize them when necessary.

“We’ve been diligently studying cardboard boat designs for years,” joked Lewis, one of the event’s judges. “We’ll use that expertise to determine who’s got the best vessel.”

At first, Team Coast Guard emerged as the day’s favorites. The group of marine inspectors, who make sure cargo ships and tankers are seaworthy enough for New York’s waterways, arrived at Governors Island with a solid blueprint designed by a mechanical engineer from the Coast Guard Academy.

“She’s not necessarily built for speed, but she’s built to not sink,” said Lt. JG Doug Neumann, 25, of the Coast Guard Sector New York.

“We don’t want to be the first ones to sink,” he added while his teammates reinforced the kayak’s structure with tape. “But if we use enough tape, we’ll be OK.”

But as they hit the Buttermilk Channel, the scales began tipping in favor of another team, Stevens Institute of Technology.

“It was a little tippy when we first got in but we were neck to neck with the Coast Guard for most of it,” said Cate Porter, 15, who rowed for the SIT team alongside her brother Carrick Porter, 21, who is a student there.

The solid kayak commandeered by the Porter siblings touched the pier a fraction of a second before the Coast Guard’s, winning their qualifying round and advancing to the finals.

“They actually passed us on the turn but we came back,” added Cate Porter, a high-schooler who rows for the Mercer Junior Rowing Club in New Jersey. “They had a really nice looking boat — but in the end, we pulled through.”

Three teams advanced to the final: Stevens Institute, Stuyvesant High School's “SciOly” and NYC Water Trails.

Finalists looked uneasy as their boats were lowered a second time into the water, and spectators watched as they re-boarded the already water-weakened boats.

“I’d say I’m at about 30 percent,” said Stuyvesant’s Brian Chuk, 16, when asked how confident he was he’d remain afloat.

“Oh come on, guys,” rallied teammate Adam Matras, 19, “we’re at 100 percent.”

Water Trails was the first to go down. The kayak barely made it off the pier and sunk slowly, overcome with water seeping in through a hole.

Stevens Institute breezed through smoothly, with the powerhouse Porter siblings rowing efficiently toward the finish line to a cheering crowd.

Aboard Stuyvesant's boat, senior Brian Chuk and sophomore Troy Ramsarran got back to the finish line dead last — but to just as much cheering as the winners.

“At first, I thought the cardboard wouldn’t work. Then I saw the first few teams dive in and saw it worked, so I thought, ‘We may still have a chance,'" said Ramsarran, 15.

But, 16-year-old Chuk added, “The instant my friend got into the boat, all of a sudden I started feeling water trickling down my back. There was a tiny crack and it just started filling with water.

“But we still made it,” he said proudly.