The League Of Awesome Boatbuilders

Past Riverhead cardboard boat race
Bystanders cheer on a group of kids battling to stay afloat and get to the finish line.
Michael Zinn

Row, row, row your boat as fast as you can down the Peconic River for the 11th annual Riverhead Cardboard Boat Race Saturday, August 10. The Peconic Riverfront event — co-sponsored by the Riverhead Business Improvement District Management Association and the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce — was moved from June to August last summer.

“Right now the forecast is looking really good for both days, so I’m feeling good about it,” event organizer Diane Tucci said, adding the rain date is scheduled for Sunday. “We have a hula hoop contest for the kids at 10:30 AM, and then we’ll kick off the boat races with the Supervisor’s Race at 11.”

The traditional race between Southampton and Riverhead town heads is highly anticipated by the hundreds of spectators and competitors who attend the race each summer.

“I did the race last year for my first time against Jay Schneiderman,” Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said. “I’m happy to report that I won the trophy. … It’ll be interesting this year to see a little bit of competition.”

Both Jens-Smith, whose boat was built by the Riverhead Highway Department, and Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who built his own boat, will be racing in the same vessel captained in last year’s race.

“Last year, Laura beat me, but I wasn’t in a particularly competitive mood; I wanted it to be a good race,” Schneiderman said, adding he and Jens-Smith briefly considered rowing together this year before ultimately deciding against the idea. “Laura Jens-Smith and I aren’t very competitive with each other, but I’ll try to get in the spirit for the race. I’d like to take the trophy back to Southampton. Sean Walter and I were more competitive. He wanted that trophy so bad that I had to win it, and I did for two years after Anna Throne-Holst beat him.”

Local politicians aren’t the only ones battling it out on the riverfront. In fact, anyone can compete in the cardboard boat race and enter new boats up until the morning of the event.

“We encourage people to pre-register, but we don’t require it,” said Tucci. “We had at least 30 entries last year. Hundreds of people gather on the riverfront to cheer on the racers.”

Several of such are members of “The League of Awesome Cardboard Boatbuilders,” a Facebook group of dedicated cardboard shipwrights who often put more effort into building their boat than the average cardboard captain.

“I think we might go a little further than everybody else, but I will tell you that a lot of times other folks come over and say, ‘Hey, maybe we’ll do that next year,’” farm manager Mark Sisson of Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center said of how team members often make themed ships with matching costumes and areas where they set-up shop to enjoy the event. “We dressed up as ghostbusters for the 30th anniversary of ‘Ghostbusters’ in 2014 — one person dressed up as Slimer — then made a DeLorean the following year for ‘Back To The Future’s’ 30th anniversary. Some people got more excited and built a plywood clocktower, and somebody in our group of a dozen people, who go all-out, dressed up as the person walking around in present day saying, ‘Save the Clocktower.’ She had a little can and collected $8.50.”

There are youth, single, and group races that receive first, second, and third-place awards, as well as a trophy for the most epic ship sinking of the day, which is appropriately named after the Titanic.

“We decided last year to give an award for the Titanic sinking,” Tucci said, adding how the crowd cheers as the boats submerge. “We also have an outlaw boat race inspired by the Pinewood Derby, because sometimes people will get in the boat at the dock and they’ll fall over, so this is really a second chance for redemption and another opportunity. It’s completely 100 percent anything goes.”

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