Two people are paddling on the water in a cardboard boat

Photo by Yenitza Melgoza

April 02, 2024

Don’t miss the excitement at SIU’s 49th Great Cardboard Boat Regatta on April 20

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — What do a giant hoverboard, a brightly colored dragon, a sleek shark and a 10-foot-tall ukulele have in common? They have all been spotted as creative designs at previous Southern Illinois University Carbondale Great Cardboard Boat Regattas. So who knows what you might see when the 2024 Great Cardboard Boat Regatta makes its 49th appearance on April 20 where it all began, at Campus Lake. Everyone is welcome to join in the fun at the family friendly event, either as a participant or a spectator.

Races begin at 1 p.m. as participants take on the unique challenge of figuring out just how many ways a few pieces of cardboard can be cut, folded and transformed to create a unique watercraft that will hopefully circumnavigate a course around the lake via people power.

“The Great Cardboard Boat Regatta is fun no matter if you are out on the lake in a boat or dry and safely on shore,” said Mary Kinsel, director of the Mass Spectrometry Facility, associate scientist for the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and regatta organizer. “Through the years, people have come either as contestants or to watch the race and they have such a good time, they come back the next year and decide to build a boat or bring a friend. That’s how we keep this tradition alive. You are guaranteed to have a wonderful time.”

Everyone can participate

The competition is open to all ages. Contestants create a boat using corrugated cardboard of any thickness. They can use their own cardboard or purchase 7-by-8-foot sheets for $4 each in Room 110A in the Neckers Building at the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Science on campus. Call Kinsel at 618-453-6428 to arrange to pick up cardboard.

Then, imagination takes over. Craft a cardboard boat with glue, caulk, tape, staples or other similar materials to hold it together. Participants can apply a one-part waterproofing product such as latex paint, but no fiberglass or flex seal is permitted. Contestants can compete individually or in teams of up to 10 people.

More of a spur-of-the-moment kind of person? Just show up that morning and purchase an instant boat kit. It includes everything you need to construct a cardboard boat so you can join in the fun.

Variety of categories

The competition categories include:

  • Class I – human-powered boats that move across the course using paddles or similar means.
  • Class II – mechanically propelled boats that use paddlewheels, propellers or other similar methods to take riders across the lake.
  • Class III – instant boats, built at the event using kits available on-site that day. The kits will include one large sheet of cardboard, a box knife, a plastic sheet, a nail and a roll of duct tape.
  • Class IV – youth division, for children ages 13 and younger.

Scouting organizations, schools, youth groups, families, work groups and a diverse assortment of other assemblages have worked together to build boats for previous regattas and are invited to do so again in 2024.

Race organizers will furnish kayak paddles, oars and life jackets.

Winners earn prizes

The race begins at Becker Pavilion and Campus Lake Beach, and the goal is to complete the entire course. But in this unique regatta, you can win a prize without even finishing the race!  Indeed, some of the regatta’s most memorable “winners” have not even come close to the finish line but rather earned the “Titanic” award for the most spectacular sinking. Trophies are awarded to the top three finishers in each division, too, as well as for the best team spirit and for the “best use of cardboard.”

Nearly half-century of tradition

The cardboard boat regatta has been a popular SIU tradition for nearly five decades. The first cardboard boat challenge on campus actually occurred in 1962, but the annual boat regatta as it is now known began as a final exam project for the late Richard Archer’s freshman dimensional design class in 1974. He challenged his students to create a cardboard boat to complete a 200-yard course, and 40% of the boats sank during that inaugural competition. But a tradition was born, and by 1976, anyone – including community members and other universities – could enter the annual spring contest.

W. Larry Busch and the late Larry “Skip” Briggs, both emeritus professors from SIU’s School of Art and Design, served as race coordinators for many years. Alpha Chi Sigma, SIU’s professional chemistry fraternity, and faculty adviser Kinsel, stepped in in 2010 to keep the tradition alive.

Check out an online retrospective, featuring photos and video highlighting nearly 50 years of laughs, thrills, excitement and fun.

Register early

Sign up now for the 2024 Great Cardboard Boat Regatta – early registration at the reduced price of $15 ends at noon April 12. You can sign up online or by calling 618-536-7751.

Participants can register on site on race day as well for $20. Race-day registration and boat inspections begin at 10 a.m.

Each boat registration receives a commemorative regatta T-shirt; additional shirts can be ordered for $12 each by emailing Kinsel at A limited number of shirts will be available for purchase at the event as well.

All participants must sign a risk waiver; parents must sign for those under age 18.

For more information and complete rules and details, visit the regatta website or the Great Cardboard Boat Regatta Facebook page. Contact Kinsel at or 618-453-6428 for additional details.