Float Your Boat to benefit Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri

The cardboard boat race, taking place April 25, will raise money and collect food for the fourth year in a row.
The Chiquita team members paddle their banana boat April 12, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. The 2014 Float Your Boat for The Food Bank was held at the Bass Pro Shops Lake. Courtesy of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

Two miniature oars sat on a table in the office of Thomas Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

“The first couple years, the Food Bank gave me these things,” Payne said, picking them up.

The oar from the inaugural year of the race, four years ago, is engraved with the Float Your Boat for the Food Bank logo along with information about the first race. Twenty boats competed, $2,460 was raised and 1,800 pounds of food were collected.

Payne received the oars as a recognition of his role in bringing the event to Columbia.

“My vision for (this event) was that it becomes embedded in the community as something that the community wants to do and it takes on a life of its own,” he said.

Float Your Boat for the Food Bank pits competitors against one another in a race of homemade cardboard boats sailed by the builders themselves. Boats are constructed entirely out of cardboard by student groups, businesses, families and community members to raise money and collect food for the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri.

The fourth annual Float Your Boat for the Food Bank is scheduled for April 25.

The Food Bank, which always has a surplus of cardboard, holds a “dumpster dive” event several weeks before the competition, in which it opens its facilities for one night only so participants can collect materials to build their boats with.

The event is planned and sponsored by members of CAFNR and the Food Bank. The Food Bank helps feed over 114,000 people every month in 32 counties across Missouri. Ninety-two percent of its funding comes from donations, fundraising events and grants.

The competition itself will take place at Bass Pro Shops Lake in northeast Columbia. There is a kids’ race, an adults’ race and a pirate race with prizes awarded to the three fastest boats, as well as special category prizes, including “Best in Show,” “Can’t Believe It’s Cardboard” and “Titanic Award for the Best Sinking.” Attendees can vote for their favorite boat on the day of the race by placing cash donations in fish bowls sitting in front of each boat.

Float Your Boat has become a much-anticipated event for the Columbia community. In 2014, 52 boats competed and more than $21,500 was collected for the Food Bank through donations, sponsorships and entry fees. Close to 1,500 people were in attendance last year. This year’s race is predicted to have around 80 boats competing.

Payne got the idea for the event when he drove up to New York with his wife for a meeting while working at Ohio State University. The two stopped at a restaurant near a marina in Watkins Glen State Park when they noticed a parade coming down the street.

“People were dressed in costumes and carrying boats on their shoulders,” Payne said. “I asked the waitress, ‘What’s going on?’ She says, ‘That’s our annual Cardboard Boat Regatta. All of the boats are made out of cardboard, and they float.’”

Payne returned from New York and called his friend at Cornell University and told him about the event he had just seen. The friend liked the idea and decided to use it as a fundraiser in Geneva, New York.

Payne struggled, however, with starting an event like the one he had just witnessed at Ohio State University.

When Payne came to MU, he brought up the idea to Kristen Smarr, director of communications for CAFNR. Smarr met with several people from the Food Bank and was able to set up the event.

Float Your Boat had its first cardboard boat competition in 2011 at Phillips Lake in Columbia, including a boat sailed by Payne himself.

“Three seconds after we ran it, we capsized,” Payne said.

Payne attends the event every year, but he hasn’t sailed since the first event.

“After we sank the first boat from our office, they haven’t asked me to be in the boat anymore,” Payne said, laughing. “They think I jinxed it.”

One of Smarr’s favorite things about the event is the element of the unknown.

“In the pit area, you might think, wow, that boat looks like its really well-engineered, that seems like it’s gonna be a top contender,” Smarr said. “And then you might have essentially a refrigerator box that’s been duct-taped up and you think, there’s no chance that thing’s gonna do anything. And the well-engineered boat may turn over the minute it hits the water, and the refrigerator box sails right along.”

Tony Thorpe, a senior research specialist for the Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences Department in the School of Natural Resources, has participated in the event every year since its inception. The laboratory he works in gets a group of people together and constructs a boat in the shape of a different aquatic animal each year.

In both 2013 and 2014, his boats, co-captained by fellow senior research specialist Dan Obrecht, won the People’s Choice Award, the award given to the boat that receives the largest amount of donations.

In 2014, Thorpe and Obrecht’s boat, the Dragonfly, raised $2,514. This year, the team is building and racing a turtle-shaped cardboard boat.

Thorpe chuckled as he explained why he thinks participating in the race is important.

“Of course it’s a great cause, and feeding hungry people is a basic thing we all should be doing, but making it fun makes it a lot easier to be a good person,” Thorpe said.

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