MIT’s Annual Cardboard Boat Regatta

MIT’s Annual Cardboard Boat Regatta


The Head of the Zesiger is a cardboard boat regatta in which three students put together a boat. They can actually have as many boat builders as they like, but they need to be in the cardboard boat, paddling during the actual competition. The real challenge each year is the fact that the race course changes so there are different challenges. And so, when designing the boats there’s a different theme and focus in mind. I was terrified on Thursday because we were like only halfway through, a bit more really, but we didn’t yet have the hull so that was a bit of an issue. But we got a lot of people to help the last two days so we able to finish it and paint it, and, well, we’re going to win. My freshman year was the first year I competed and my brother, he went to MIT as well, he’s two years ahead of me so when I got here as a freshman my brother Brian was like, “Oh man, there’s this cardboard boat race and I’ve always wanted to do it but I could never get a team together.” I’m a mechanical engineering so it sounded like a really good challenge mostly because everything you do you have to innovate. There isn’t any set way to do this sort of thing. It’s not like, you know, everybody that builds a Formula 1 ® car, well people build Formula 1® cars and there’s a way to do it, so you do it. But a cardboard boat you have to completely come up with how it’s going to work on the stop, every time. The difference between most cardboard boat regattas is the students actually design it ahead of time. They don’t design it day of. Most schools that offer this type of competition will give the supplies and they have one hour to put some duct tape together, use some styrofoam and different formats. This is purely based on cardboard, paper tape and paint, that’s it. They’re not allowed to use duct tape. They’re not allowed to use styrofoam or anything that has natural buoyancy to it. So we went into this with a little bit more of a challenge then you’ll see at most schools. I think MIT students just like to problem solve things and this is a really good opportunity to try it out. Some people have tried it, maybe in High School or something, but MIT really takes almost everything to the next level when we do this sort of thing. A good fraction of the students are young students, in the first couple of years. Maybe some who haven’t declared. Others are graduate students so they’re pretty far down the road. The goal of building a cardboard boat to navigate a course in water, however appeals to all of them, many of the core disciplines of mechanical engineering happen to be well represented. If you just look at our core classes: mechanics of materials, well there’s the cardboard and the strength of beams. There’s the dynamics, when the boat go unstable with people trying to control it and the steering. And then there’s fluid part, both in the efficiency of the hull and in the use of paddles and other propulsion devices. And these are very broad themes across the school of engineering and science as well. So they bring in their boats and they line them up next to the pool. They are judged before they go in the water for of course infractions, that’s bad, but then we’re looking for the style, the spirit, the quality of the design, and these are all things you look at and you make an assessment on paper. Now that’s a minor fraction of the score. Most of the score and what determines the winner, will really be success of the mission. And I think that’s in line with the way an engineer has to think. We can analyze and make things beautiful, but it’s got to get the job done and it’s got to finish the course in order to take the big points. I just like to try new things and even if they don’t work out it’s fine, it’s the trying that’s the fun part not necessarily the winning or having the fastest, most efficient boat. And it’s really good to look at your calculations and then see that it all works out in the end. That’s one of the best parts. When you can go from a computer to actual, physical boat that is just like you imagined it; that’s one of the most rewarding parts for me. During the actual event we will have boat-handlers on deck to help the participants get onto or into their boats by holding the boat steady as they get in. Throughout the entire competition they need to have all three of their participants in the boat during their paddle session. If any of their participants fall out, then they’ve got to get back into the boat somehow before they can advance. Not very many succeed actually, quite a large fraction of these boats will sink. And I think if they were all successful the students wouldn’t enjoy it quite as much. I think one of the best sinkings that I’ve seen was last year, I believe it was. There was one boat and they got maybe 15 feet out on the course and it started sinking. And they didn’t try and panic or anything they just had one guy stand up and play an imaginary violin while the boat sank into the ocean. It’s a lot of fun even if you don’t have a solid boat. Being able to design an event that the students could do each year and each year it’s a little more difficult is something that we wanted the students to be able to have here on campus, but also to open it up to other universities. So the future of the Head of the Zesiger is definitely a bright future, and I can definitely see a lot of different colleges coming onboard to compete year after year. Hopefully we’ll have a good turn out from other schools in the future.

16 thoughts on “MIT’s Annual Cardboard Boat Regatta

  1. Take it to next level, MIT. Do the Thor Heyerdahl challenge in a cardboard boat or, if feeling particularly "Will Hunting" cocky, the Red Bull Flugtag challenge xD

  2. Ideal boat has already been designed, hence wankery. Aside from practical application of learning not very progressive. Should design a unique challenge in a nascent field with an objective that actually impacts the real world. That would take this to the next level.

  3. As a higher education institution, wouldn't you think that the infantile thrill of falling into the water is outweighed by trying to consume less natural materials in order to help our earth? Why don't you think of using recyclable materials to construct those boats and you would be really intructing your students to a worthwhile cause.

  4. Why not take a proven boat shape?
    Aren't they allowed to use the internet?
    Multihulls are also allowed?

  5. Amateurs. Some of those people weren't using cardboard paddles. Also paper tape and paint hold up much better in water than duct tape. I don't see why they're saying it's more challenging without duct tape.

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