Once each July, at the World Championship Cardboard Boat Races launched on Greers Ferry Lake, folks in and around Heber Springs, Arkansas, take leave of their senses. Not only do they float off in boxes, they race around a course atop rafts of corrugated cardboard. One entire summer day turns into a giant beach party celebrating boxes shaped into boats.
Over the past 25 years, the quirky concept of floating on cardboard has grown from an afternoon event to an annual World Championship Festival with national coverage by magazines, newspapers, and major sports television networks. In 2008, Discovery Channel featured the Cardboard Boat Races in their Wreckreation Nation. The wacky races have also turned up on ESPN, German TV, Fox Sports Network, and CBS, to name a few. Arkansas Parks and Tourism awarded the wild and wet festival the Henry Award, the most prestigious tourism prize in the state.
The idea of a cardboard boat festival germinated back in 1987 with information on The Great Cardboard Regatta that began in 1974 as a project for freshmen in the Design College at Southern Illinois University. The students’ assignment: design and build a person-powered boat made of corrugated cardboard. The boats had to be capable of completing four heats around a 200-yard rectangular course. In spite of creative problem-solving being the point of the assignment, the Illinois freshmen discovered that floating in a box was just plain fun.
However, convincing the citizens of Heber Springs that such a craft could stay afloat, especially with people aboard, required some hard work from the city’s Special Events Committee. After all, the notion of building a boat out of cardboard is about as hare-brained as catching water in a fish net. And the theory that a floating box could race around a marked course? “Get real!” most folks protested.
Yet, people rise to a dare when striving for the improbable. In such a fun-filled function, all elements of failure are removed. Anyone who builds a boat is successful. Any boat that launches is successful. And anyone who completes a race goes beyond his or her wildest expectations.
With that premise pushing leaders in the Ozarks Mountain town, rules on the construction of a cardboard boat were established. For example, all boats must be built of corrugated cardboard in as many layers as the builder desires. But entrants are warned. If judges suspect a vessel is braced with wood or metal, the dreaded “ice pick test” pokes holes in a sailor’s prized ship.
No motors are permitted. Oars, propulsion systems (such as bicycle pedals), and steering devises from other materials must meet approval. Decorations and themes are encouraged. Many title contenders carry out their ideas with costumes and a land display, complete with canopies and props.
Construction seams and stress points can be reinforced with tape and the entire vessel can be waterproofed with one-part substance paint. No epoxy glue, fiberglass, nor certain varnishes, please. Contestants cannot wrap their boats with plastic or duct tape or any similar tape or wrap. And participants are not permitted to use any substance that might be harmful to the pristine waters of Greers Ferry Lake.
With ground rules in place, the races launch with good-natured rivalry between local industries, the business community, and everyday citizens. The categories include one or two persons in a boat or a team, with several mates dashing oars in the sparkling lake water. Some boats are high-tech; others are no tech at all, proving that creativity and imagination are alive and well in this offbeat contest. In both children and adults categories, trophies go to “Pride of the Fleet”, the “Titanic” – a coveted award to the vessel with the most dramatic sinking, and the “Captains Award” for overall team spirit.
At the Heber Springs races, competition is trimmed down while fun is underscored. Throughout the town, neighboring cities—and even neighboring states—boat building is a major pre-festival activity, mounting a frenzied excitement that splashes, and sometimes sinks, on race day. Some boats take months to construct. Others are improvised from a tossed-out refrigerator carton only an hour prior to the race. Corporations and organizations band together to build elaborate flotillas that rival the houseboats and pontoon barges lined up on the lake as a spectator galley.
While some boat captains downplay the pageantry of themes and costumes and push up the speed, a number of vessels go down as quickly as they launch. From pirate ships to sleek orange racecars to Razorback red boats shaped like Arkansas’ favorite sports team mascot, innovation is the key for the day.
Over the years, the Cardboard Boat Races stretched into a full day’s activities, beginning with an early morning volleyball game and sand sculpting contest for all ages. As the races expanded, so did other contests such as A Treasure Dig for kids, Tug-of-War Games, a sanctioned World Championship Watermelon Eating Contest, and the Demolition Derby, a battle for participants who choose to test their vessel’s ability to stay afloat. Almost two dozen boats have clashed to be the last boat on top of the water.
The 25th Annual World Championship Cardboard Boat Races kicks off on July 30 at Greers Ferry Lake in the Damsite Recreation Area, a short drive north of Heber Springs, Arkansas. Food vendors cook up festival food—funnel cakes, foot long corn dogs, hamburgers, Chicago hot dogs, Mexican food, crawfish, and shrimp. Summer supplies sunshine and cool blue water. And the Annual Cardboard Boat Races reinvents a box to throw a party.
For an application to participate in the boat races, check www.heber-springs.com or call 501-362-2444. For RVers, full or partial hook-up sites are available nearby at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Parks, Damsite, John F. Kennedy, and Old Highway 25. For reservations:
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com