A regatta in Cambridge conjures up a classic image of fall in New England: crew shells slicing over the Charles River, graceful coeds rowing in perfect unison to propel the boat forward, coxswains shouting commands in crisp morning air that smells of autumn.
Unfortunately, the MIT Head of the Zesiger Cardboard Regatta has none of these things. It smells like chlorine. There’s a lot of frantic paddling with kickboards, not oars. The “boats” are made of cardboard, and sometimes they sink.
But what the Cardboard Regatta lacks in dignity, it makes up for with fun and hilarity. Sponsored by the Department of Athletics Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER) and now in its fourth year, the event coincides with the traditional Head of Charles by offering the MIT community a unique challenge: to build and race a cardboard boat in the Zesiger Center pool.
The rules of the competition are simple: build a boat at least 48 hours ahead of the race using a limited set of materials (cardboard, paper tape, and paint), then bring the boat to the Z Center to race. But leave it to MIT’s sailors to make a simple process more complicated.
This year’s race, held on Saturday, Oct. 16, featured two boats. “Oily,” crewed by a team from the Media Lab of two PhD students, Peter Schmitt and Arthur Petron, and a visiting scientist, Dale Joachim. This team has won the previous two years in a row. Perhaps their success comes from their sleek catamaran design; perhaps it’s their tradition of naming their vessel after a current event (last year’s boat was Bailout). Either way, Schmitt, Petron and Joachim have the makings of a dynasty.
But the big question at this year’s race was whether or not the Viking-inspired “Osokkvandi Ond” could plunder the Oily team’s winning streak. A rookie crew from Simmons Hall, including two brothers — freshman Alex McCarthy and junior Brian McCarthy — and freshman Mateo Doll, hoped their beginner’s luck and a boat complete with a duckhead figurine would be the keys to victory.
Taking a break from P-sets, the Simmons team, with help from fellow freshmen residents Victor Morales, Jennifer Hsu and Abbel Getu, worked with a boatload of cardboard and tape, overcoming design problems as a group.
“The Cardboard Boat Regatta was exactly the kind of experience that I was looking forward to engaging in when I came to MIT; something I can really sink my teeth into and enjoy the whole process — design, construction and execution,” said Alex McCarthy, captain of the Osokkvandi.
When the paint was finally dry, the constructed boats had to make their way to the Z Center. Visiting families on campus for Family Weekend may have seen the McCarthy brothers carrying their boat upside down on their heads, like Viking raiders portaging to a fjord.
If you ignore the fact that the boats are marginally seaworthy, made of cardboard, and in a pool, the race resembles Cambridge’s original October regatta. The announcer and judge, Professor Franz Hover, silenced the cheering crowd for the start. Instead of the regulated crew race length of 2,000 meters, however, the Cardboard Regatta’s course is 30 meters, with boats having to complete a figure eight around a buoy and coming back.
The race looked close as both boats approached and passed the buoy at the same time. But the Osokkvandi Ond was taking on water, and shortly after, it floated for the last time, before the duckhead was sadly submerged.
“The race was possibly more fun in sinking,” said Alex McCarthy, who ended up in the water when his vessel’s entire stern, in which he was sitting, ripped free from the rest of the boat, before the whole thing sank “Titanic-style,” as he described it.
In the end, the combined luck of two brothers, a viking boat, and a Simmons duck couldn’t beat the Media Lab team, who won with a final time of 1:07, 20 seconds slower than their winning time last year, which the team attributed to this year’s change in course.
At the medal ceremony, both teams laughed and “compared boats like a couple of mechanics admiring each other's cars,” said Alex McCarthy, who hopes to have more teams compete next year and admits that he has already begun designing a new boat.
“I learned that even as an upperclassmen it isn't too late to do these fun things and have a good time,” said Brian McCarthy.
For more information about the Head of the Zesiger Cardboard Regatta, contact Jennifer Gallagher, assistant director of marketing and public relations, firstname.lastname@example.org.