• Management senior Rebecca Oman, biology senior Chensi Ouyang and mechanical engineering senior Ellann Cohen together pilot the vessel Ship Happens. The team won the Head of the Zesiger cardboard boat regatta held Oct. 19.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • The crew of the Black Pearl sets off in the Head of the Zesiger cardboard regatta.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • The crew starts to experience that sinking feeling ...

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Finally the crew of the Black Pearl goes down with their ship. From bow to stern, crew members are juniors Gavin Cotter, Stephen Fournier and Alan Foreman.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Cardboard boaters sink or skim


The Head of the Charles may have been last weekend, but the real nautical excitement was found in the Zesiger Center swimming pool on Friday afternoon.

Four teams of MIT students took to the pool in cardboard crafts of varying seaworthiness, in the inaugural Head of the Zesiger cardboard regatta held Oct. 19. Participants were given kickboards to paddle the length of the pool and back--but few teams made it that far.

The afternoon was punctuated with mock shrieks as all but one of the challengers eventually sank.

A team of three seniors built a boat of incomparable sturdiness. The vessel, Ship Happens, built only a couple of days before the race, easily outlasted all other competitors. The sleek ship was built of extra-thick cardboard and sealed with paper tape and caulking. Oil-based paint added further waterproofing.

Team captain Ellann Cohen said her team got design ideas by checking out ships entered in other cardboard regattas around the country. The team made a trip to Lowe's Home Improvement early one morning last week to pick up the cardboard, which had to be specially requested.

"They don't sell it, but they use it to ship things," Cohen said.

Ship Happens took home first place in three categories: fastest, best-looking, and best technical construction. Other team members were Rebecca Oman and Chensi Ouyang.

In the first heat, Ship Happens took on a boat with the misnomer Unsinkable II. The vessel sank at the starting line, then crew members bailed it out and tried again, with the same result.

Meanwhile, Ship Happens made it to the end of the pool and back in 1:58.47.

Freshman Christina Jaworsky, one of the Unsinkable II crew, said her team heard about the regatta during orientation and started planning right away. The team gathered cardboard from a few sources, including the boxes Jaworsky used to move into her dorm at MIT.

The team's tape and caulking could not hold up once the boat entered the pool, however. "It was fine until it split in half and the water came in," Jaworsky said.

Unsinkable II took home the prize for "Best Sinker," also known as the Titanic Award. Other team members were freshmen Justin Lan and Alex Vai.

The second heat pitted two pirate-themed boats against each other. Conner 4 Pirates made it about halfway across the pool before sinking spectacularly, while Black Pearl completed the course in 3:32.08, setting up a showdown in the finals against Ship Happens.

However, Black Pearl had taken on too much water in its first heat and sank shortly after launching in the final heat. The crew, however, won the award for "Most Spirited."

Judges for the regatta were Wesley Harris, head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Kim Blair, research engineer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Ari Epstein, lecturer in the Earth System Initiative; Donald Sadoway, professor of materials science and engineering; and Thomas Allen, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management and professor emeritus of engineering systems.

A few dozen enthusiastic spectators attended the race, which the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER) hopes to make an annual event. DAPER staff conceived the event as a way for MIT students to have some fun while putting their engineering skills to use.

"We try to be a learning lab, where people can come and do recreational things that help you learn and also provide stress relief," said Jennifer Gallagher, DAPER's assistant director of marketing and public relations.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 24, 2007 (download PDF).


Topics: Contests and academic competitions, Students

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