Cardboard boat regatta supports, enriches center for autism

savwilliams@tidewaterreview.com

Jumping into a handmade, cardboard, two-person boat won't be a mistake come Aug. 12 – it'll be the organized plan of more than 25 local racing teams.

The Williamsburg Jaycees, a community leadership club for residents ages 21-40, is hosting its annual cardboard boat regatta on Saturday on the York River. The funds raised from the entry fees this year will go to benefit the One Child Center for Autism.

The Jaycees are introducing a new "Home Depot" challenge this year to accompany the usual racing heats — where teams paddle almost the length of two football fields in a contest for speed and flotation — as well as a pirate race, where boats who have survived the regular activities are invited to get back in the water with weapons of sabotage like squirt guns and buckets for an ultimate splash-off.

The Home Depot race centers around morning-of construction skills. It was specifically designed for the people who every year tell "Admiral" Jason Blanchard, chairman of the regatta, they would participate if only they had the time to build a boat. This year, people are invited to grab some scissors from home and sign up for the new race, where cardboard and duct tape will be laid out in front of them, and they have two hours to construct a vessel before testing its seaworthiness.

Blanchard said this contest doesn't leave much time for participants to waterproof their boats, adding to the challenge.

"They're all going to sink, we kind of assume that's going to be the case," Blanchard said, "but the last one wins!"

Sinking is not a cause for concern in the shallow cove near the Watermen's Museum. Race officials even give out a Titanic Award for the most comedic, dramatic or catastrophic boat failure.

The One Child Center, which will be using the day's proceeds to fund scholarships and programs for its children next year, decided to test the waters by registering two teams of students.

For these children, the event isn't just a day of fun with friends, but an opportunity to work on life skills.

Julie Cullifer, the center's executive director, said building a boat was an ideal way to challenge the children, third grade through middle school, to use their creative minds in a way that also required teamwork, collaboration and facing frustration when construction didn't go their way.

"During the summer they're normally doing our Lego groups," said Cullifer. "And we can work on the same skill sets, but that's not applicable as far as the real world. When they leave at the end of the night, we tear the Lego thing down … whereas this is something that they can say that they did, they tried. There's a physics component, kind of hands-on component to it that I think is probably going to be the most rewarding for them."

Even purely organizational activities, like suggesting names for their craft and using votes to lock in the final decision, put everyday lessons into practice for these teams. The third- through fifth-grade group decided to go with The Eliminator, while the middle school team named its vessel U.S.S. Boat.

"That's really what these kids need. They need to learn to be accepting of others' ideas, and they need to work on things like sharing and being patient," Cullifer said. "Hopefully, at the end of this process there's a sense of fulfillment, because they've actually created a work product."

One of the students, Caleb, 10, said he enjoyed building the boat, even though he had low expectations for its performance.

"One of its features is that it's probably going to be a one-time use," Caleb said. "Mostly water resistant."

Cullifer said the center chose their teams based on who the therapists thought could handle the sensations of race day, including having their boat sink, just in case their vessels go down. Some children with autism have extreme reactions to loud sounds, bustling crowds and strange textures, Cullifer said. Even before the excitement of Aug. 12, she said sensitivity posed a particular problem when some of the children didn't want to touch caulk to insulate their boats.

Whether or not The Eliminator sinks, Caleb said he's ready to take on the regatta next year.

"I don't know if there's going to be anything like this again," he said, "but if there is, I would probably want to (make another boat)."

Blanchard stopped by the One Child Center and gave the children some construction tips before they got started. He said all ages stand a sporting chance in this race, since the winners are usually determined more by design than strength. He said he'd seen professional rowers that didn't even make it off the beach when their boat failed them.

"You can't just be fast," Blanchard said. "Your boat has to make it through multiple heats."

Luckily for Caleb, both Cullifer and Blanchard plan for more regattas.

"The people that participate, generally speaking, they're coming back year after year," Blanchard said. He said people even call ahead as early as January for the schedule, to make sure they plan their family vacations in a way that won't conflict with the race.

Cullifer said the children and therapists at the center would be looking forward to next year along with all the other racers.

"The idea that it gives you something to work towards all summer, and then come out, and it's just a family event," Cullifer said, "it really fits well into the One Child mold."

Williams can be reached by phone at 804-824-8289.

It's not too late to sign up

Teams can register for the race until Aug. 10, but the race tops out at 50 boats. Crew members must be at least 5 years old. For full rules and to register, visit:

Williamsburgjaycees.org/Regatta

Event: cardboard boat race

Time: 10 a.m.

Date: Aug. 12

Location: 309 Water Street, Yorktown

Cost:$60

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