Column: Gathering in the true spirit of the race

Outlaw Cardboard Boat Race

The first time I covered the Riverhead Cardboard Boat race was in 2013. A crowd of more than 1,500 people wrapped around the Peconic Riverfront on a sunny, hot Sunday in June. In a shady spot, I came across Patrick White wearing a baseball hat with a handmade seagull fastened to it. He was down on one knee, working furiously with a magic marker as he put the finishing touches on his first cardboard boat, The Poop Deck.

While some people had labored for weeks on their vessels, the Amityville teenager had built his the day before.

As the race got underway, The Poop Deck got off to a good start, but later became the first boat to fully fill with water and sink. Still sporting a smile, Patrick swam back to the dock — dragging his boat along with him.

The crowd still shouted words of encouragement to Patrick as the Long Island Science Center’s award-winning Archimedes III, featuring two large cardboard pontoons for flotation, passed him by.

Since this was the fourth time our paper had covered the event, I decided to approach the story differently. I ran with a story about Patrick as an underdog because I believed it highlighted the true spirit of the community event.

That same sense of camaraderie came tenfold Sunday.

When the town canceled this year’s cardboard boat race, a group of diehard participants took it upon themselves to host their own event dubbed an “outlaw cardboard boat race.”

Two teams arrived at the riverfront and raced each other Sunday morning. That was the date that had been considered as a possible makeup after the event, originally scheduled for late June, was postponed because the low tide combined with a high number of bunker fish in the river led to fears there could be another large fish kill.

The Riverhead Town Board later canceled the event due to a lack of volunteers.

Mattituck resident Mark Sisson, who has participated in the race since its start in 2010, had his cardboard boat nearly completed when the race was canceled.

Over the years, Mr. Sisson and his team had created elaborate boats, including last year’s DeLorean from “Back to the Future.” This time around, he decided not to move forward with his team’s original idea — Greased Lightning — and kept it plain without a theme.

Shortly after participating in his first race six years ago, Mr. Sisson and his shipmates created a Facebook group called the League of Awesome Cardboard Boat Builders where many locals keep in touch about their own cardboard boat plans, as well as other artistic endeavors for the downtown area, including window decorations and street painting.

Two other members of the League and friends of Mr. Sisson’s team — Gabby Comanda of Center Moriches and her boyfriend, Sam Notaro of Riverhead — had also built a boat prior to the event’s cancellation and decided to compete against Mr. Sisson’s team. This would be their first race.

As Patrick White did in 2013, Ms. Comanda and Mr. Notaro scrambled to finish their boat the day of the race.

While they started out ahead of the other team after sneaking in a head start, their boat — Hope it Floats — collapsed and sank just before reaching the finish line.

“Originally, our theme was going to be a Viking ship, but when we ran out of time we decided to just put duct tape on it and hope it floats,” Mr. Notaro said.

“It was a great time and hopefully we’ll get to experience an official race with more people next year,” added Ms. Comanda.

Following the race, Mr. Sisson said spectators asked to jump aboard and the team gave about 15 people rides.

He also made an award topped with a roll of duct tape and presented it to Ms. Comanda and her team for their sportsmanship.

The group of friends then enjoyed a picnic.

Councilman Jim Wooten, who is a Town Board liaison on the event, said he’s glad to hear there was an unofficial race and described this year’s cancellation as unfortunate.

“It was definitely a health issue at the time,” he said. “And if we can get more people to become active in it, then we’ll definitely have it next year. It’s a great event and we certainly look forward to it.”

Mr. Sisson, who works as the farm supervisor for Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center, said his group of cardboard boat race fans support the Town Board and Riverhead BID’s decision and believes it was wise to have postponed the original date in order to avoid another fish kill.

As for next year, they’re hopeful the race will happen.

“It’s a fun event, even if it can’t be official,” Mr. Sisson said. “It’s something we’d like to do and will probably do again if they keep canceling.”

Top photo: From left, Mark Sisson, Chris McHugh, Nora Katlin, Katrina Lovett and Candyce Paparo. (Credit: Victoria Pendzick)

gustavsonJen Nuzzo is Times Review Media Group’s managing editor. She can be reached at 631-354-8033 or [email protected].