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Kids design and race a boat in one day

At the Plywood Regatta, “whatever floats your boat” isn’t just a quip, it’s the name of the game.


At the Plywood Regatta, “whatever floats your boat” isn’t just a quip, it’s the name of the game. Here young people design and build a boat in a day, then take it out racing. The results aren’t always pretty.

Leaks can sink a good idea, says Elizabeth Dutra, a senior at South Broward High School in Hollywood, Fla. — and top-heavy designs usually are dead as soon as they hit the water. “You have no balance, and it tips over,” she says. “Some people try to come up with crazy, innovative designs that just don’t work.” One team, for instance, entered a paddlewheeler one year. On land, it made sense. On water, the paddlewheel was high and dry and the boat had no propulsion.

A simple, stable design, strong construction and a hull that’s easy to paddle are a winning combination in Fort Lauderdale’s Plywood Regatta. Organized by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, this year’s April 16-17 event drew a record 38 teams.

“We design it, we cut it, we glue it, we caulk it, then we paint it,” says Layton Graves, laying out Boy Scout Troop 131’s building technique.

Each team starts out with three 4-by-8-foot panels of quarter-inch marine plywood, four 10-foot lengths of 1-by-2-inch wood, two eight-foot lengths of 2-by-2-inch wood, 12 tubes of caulk and nylon ties to hold the boat together while it’s caulked. The only tools allowed are a jigsaw, an electric drill and caulking gun. “The rest is blood, sweat and tears,” says Rainy Stetler, one of the Scout moms.

“We’re veterans at this,” says Graves, working on the team’s boat under a red-and-white striped tent in a park just off Fort Lauderdale’s beach. The teams can’t come in with a plan on paper or any kind of template, but they can bring a plan in their heads and lessons learned from past races. If the boat is too long, it is hard to maneuver around the buoys with a paddle. “You’ve got to make it float and stay level,” Graves says. “It’s got to be half in the water and half out or it’s not stable enough.”

Too far down in the water, the boat takes on water over the bow.

The Scouts went with a tried-and-true flat-bottom canoe. The New River Middle School team chose a flat-bottom barge, an idea they adopted after flipping their canoe last year and having to swim it back to shore. “We don’t want to do that again,” says Annick Raby.

One of the marine magnet school teams from South Broward High works with mentor Jim Gene, a boatbuilder by trade. In its fifth year of evolution, the South Broward canoe boasts a multi-chined hull for improved speed and control, and a deck with water deflector on the bow to keep the water out. The design was the envy of other teams.

McFadder Technical Center, a marine trades school, built a jonboat in camouflage colors. “We just wanted to keep it simple,” says builder Erik Turek. “It’s strong and will hold up to the waves.”

MIASF spokesman Gordon Connell says the plywood regatta introduces young people to the craft of boatbuilding and to the fun of recreational boating. “We’re building boating’s future today,” he says.

Scoutmaster Mark Harnish, whose Troop 131 took first in the middle school division and second overall, says the regatta is a challenge to his boys and takes teamwork to finish a seaworthy boat in just eight hours. “They did real good,” he says. “They built it all themselves.”

The final standings: 1. Shaken Knot Stirred, McFatter High School; 2. Pink Panther United, Boy Scout Troop 131; 3. Super Kind, McFatter Technical Center.