The words “cardboard” and “boat” aren’t frequently spotted together.

At first glance, they’re an incompatible match-up, more likely to end up in couple’s counseling alongside other incongruous duos — like tin-foil pants or cotton candy cars — than to sail away into the sunset together.

But the folks at Dyer Library/Saco Museum in Saco must be saps for such implausible pairs. That would help explain the Great Cardboard Boat Race they have planned for 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Rotary Park boat launch in Biddeford.

The inaugural event challenges participants to build a boat out of boxes and hold it all together with Earth’s most tenacious binding material: duct tape. Boat builders then have to paddle their crafts from the boat launch to a nearby beach about 900 feet away. The distance isn’t extreme, but remember, we’re talking about cardboard.

It’s possible a boat constructed out of cardboard really can work, even if only for a few hundred yards. More likely, they’ll go down trying.

“I’m somewhat skeptical, but I know it can be done,” said Leslie Rounds, executive director of the Dyer Library/Saco Museum. “At least, I think it can be done.”


The race is part of a month-long series of events called The Big Read at Dyer Library/Saco Museum. The program, funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, encourages communities to read and explore a great work of American literature. Saco Library/Dyer Museum chose “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and has hosted events throughout June, from book discussions to scavenger hunts.

But organizers also wanted something extra to add to their offerings — something a little more hands-on.

“We wanted to do something wet,” said Rounds. Then an idea crystallized: “People should build boats out of cardboard and try to paddle them down the Saco River.”

It made sense, from a literary perspective. In “Tom Sawyer,” Tom and Huck float a raft down the mighty Mississippi. (Although, Rounds noted, the pair didn’t build the raft in the famous Mark Twain story — they stole it.)

To be clear, stealing is discouraged in the Great Cardboard Boat Race. Also discouraged: using any supplies aside from corrugated cardboard and duct tape.

There’s to be no treated cardboard, no epoxy and no buoyant tubes of Styrofoam tucked into just the right places. That rule not only makes the race more challenging, it keeps it river-friendly. “We don’t want people putting things into the river that are bad for the river,” said Rounds.


Cardboard boats are a study in physics, engineering and the long-standing battle between water and paper products. Water typically triumphs on account of its stealthy, small-crevice maneuvering, so most boats won’t last long on the river.

“The water is probably going to be very cold. And people are going to get very wet,” said Rounds.

But she believes that the unknown — of floating versus floundering — makes the race an interesting venture. So interesting that she’s hoping it will turn into an annual event.

“I think it could be so much fun,” she said. “It’s also a good use of the river and draws attention to what a lovely river it is.”

Saturday’s challenge is open to all ages, and there is no fee to participate. Teams and individuals are invited to build a cardboard boat large or small, for a sole sailor or a band of boaters. Duct tape can only be used on the seams, which means blanketing the boat’s bottom with seven rolls of tape isn’t allowed.

Each passenger also needs to be visible inside the craft. “No submarines,” Rounds joked. Spectators are welcome to watch the sinking action from the riverbank.


Real paddles are OK, personal flotation devices are required, and teams are welcome to paint their boat — or even develop an elaborate theme based on a cardboard pun, complete with corrugated decorations and costumes.

Participants need to register with the Dyer Library/Saco Museum, pick up a rules sheet and sign a waiver in advance. They can’t register online, but they can register at the museum the day of the event.

Winners (based either on speed or distance, depending on how the boats fare in this inaugural race) will take away prizes, such as tickets to the Monkey Trunks zipline park or Funtown Splashtown USA. They’ll also earn the uncommon title of “The Great Cardboard Boat Race Champion.”

And that’s a designation that can’t be fabricated.

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at:

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