Trying to Avoid that Sinking Feeling

Across Glen Ellyn — indeed, throughout the western suburbs — families and friends are toiling away in their garages, building cardboard boats they hope will be sturdy enough to keep them afloat.

Some have done this each spring for years and now are helping the next generation design unsinkable crafts. Others are dipping their toes in for the first time.

This year marks the 25th year of Glen Ellyn’s Cardboard Boat Regatta, the town’s annual kickoff event for the July Fourth weekend (this year on June 30). A challenge was posed last summer — build even bigger, taller, faster boats than ever before in honor of the event’s big anniversary. Invitations have been sent to every former participant.

The race’s festive atmosphere, starting at 9 a.m., will feature even more giveaways, t-shirts and surprises than in past years. But the hold-your-breath moments will begin at noon, with the launching of three to four boats at a time. The key question? Will this cardboard-and-glue entrant stay afloat, or will it sink into Lake Ellyn?

"Some groups get in the boat and as soon as the staff says, ‘Let’s go!’ . . . it flips over," says Mary Defiglia, the park district’s assistant superintendent of special facilities and "default Regatta expert."

"It’s sad. You know they’ve worked so hard — but it does happen. There’s never been a Regatta where one hasn’t flipped at the starting line."

Sinkers most often happen to groups that don’t put as much work into their craft as those who are so dedicated that they collect their 10 to 20 sheets of 6-ft by 10-ft corrugated cardboard as early as January, though most get materials in April or May. Participants cut and glue the cardboard into the shape of a boat, large and strong enough to carry between one and eight adults who will row, row, row the boats 200 yards.

"If you want to make it around the lake, you need to build (the boat) ahead of time. Some build it right then and there that morning, then they go out into the lake and sink," says Defiglia with a laugh. "If you glue it right and paint it, it will float a while without sinking."

Seaworthy design is left to the entrants, who pay $50 to compete. Part of the fun is the engineering trial and error.

"We don’t tell people how to build the boat, but we offer three free boat-building seminars each year where people can get good tips from people who have built successful boats. We don’t give all the tips away or everyone would have the same type of boat."

No chance of that. Regatta boats have ranged from simple pirate boats to a replica of the Wright Brothers’ plane. There was that "ginormous" Harley Davidson ridden by eight adults, and another boat made to look like a stick of butter. Yes, butter. George Washington crossing the Delaware is a popular staple as well.

"We try not to put as much emphasis on the competition because it’s such a family-oriented thing," says Defiglia. "It’s nothing you can practice for because you can’t build your boat and go out and try it."

Some first-time paddlers are surprised at how long the 200-yard course seems when navigating a cardboard vehicle.

"We offer canoe rentals on Sunday mornings so people can test their rowing skills in something they know will float," says Defiglia.

Others figure the distance their yacht travels is beside the point.

"Some groups just want to look good — like the guys who dressed in bridal gowns, served wedding cake to spectators and called themselves the ‘always the bridesmaids, never the brides.’ Sometimes it’s all about the fun."

Many entrants are former spectators who, after a few summers of hanging with thousands of others on shore guessing which boat might win the "most spectacular sinking" or the "Lake Ellyn Queen, Pride of the Regatta" awards, are moved to take the plunge themselves.

Participants are largely local, but a "fair amount" hail from Lombard, Wheaton, Bolingbrook, Chicago and various schools and businesses in the larger Chicagoland area.

Speaking of hail . . . what happens if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate?

Defiglia pauses. "We don’t talk much about bad weather," she says. "In my 15 years we’ve never been rained out. Unless there’s lightning, we’ll go. I mean — the boats are going to get wet anyway!"