How to build a ship that will impress the crowd at the cardboard boat race

Design tips to help you float your Fourth of July hopes at the 20th Annual Cardboard Boat Race

When Robert Gair invented the cardboard box in 1879, he probably had no idea that people would eventually disassemble his creation to make boats.

Thanks to Gair, people across the country have been making floating and sinking cardboard crafts for about half a century. In Prattville, it’s been 20 years since the first cardboard boat race at Pratt Pool, a fun time that has become an annual Fourth of July tradition.

This year, Independence Day falls on a Thursday, which will likely boost the crowds in Prattville, said Betty Hall of Prattville Parks and Recreation. She should know, since Hall created the race in 2004. As always, the boats will be built and begin sailing at Pratt Park just after the 9 a.m. Prattville Fourth of July parade.

More: After twenty years, the cardboard boat race is becoming a Fourth of July tradition

“We usually have more people when it’s closer to the middle of the week because people stay in town,” Hall said.

That means boat building teams will probably have a very good audience if they spend half an hour making the boats in the pool parking lot – that is, when they’re not barbecuing at the Prattville Lions Club, shopping at the vendors and listening to live music right there in Pratt Park.

Long before Prattville’s Fourth of July fireworks light up the night across town at the Homeplace Clock Tower, teams will dive into a quest for cardboard boat glory.

Since this is the 20th anniversary of the race, here are team tips for designing your best boat that will wow the crowds and maybe even keep you afloat.

You can build with this

  • Take any cardboard you want and use it, as long as it is not waxed or painted.
  • Non-waxed cardboard tubes are permitted.
  • Each team may use 2 rolls of standard size duct tape.
  • You may also use two Styrofoam pool noodles
  • Decorate the boat with permanent markers, crayons, stickers and company logos.

“If they want to build their own paddles, they can make them out of cardboard,” Hall said. “They can also use ping-pong paddles. We started doing that a few years ago.”

More: Tuned in: You’ll have a blast in Prattville on the 4th of July

While you have 30 minutes to assemble your boat on site, teams are allowed to have parts cut in advance. They just can’t be decorated or put together in any way.

Also give it a catchy name, something that fits the design that the audience will remember.

Cardboard boat design tips

Corrugated cardboard is quite sturdy, but that doesn’t matter if water seeps in. Hall strongly recommends that boat makers cover all visible edges with duct tape. That’s a tip backed up by officials at the annual World Cardboard Boat Race Championships in Heber Springs, Arkansas, who also offered a few other expert suggestions:

  • Start with a sketch: design it on paper before building it.
  • Build the bottom of the boat first: two to three layers of cardboard are preferred.
  • Strengthen your torso: Try multiple layers that are securely attached to each other. Additional reinforcement is needed in the places where water sports enthusiasts will sit. Fold and overlap cardboard around the corners to make it stronger.
  • Cutting Techniques: When making the side pieces, cut against the grain of the corrugated cardboard for better durability. When scoring cardboard to make a fold, use the blunt side of a knife. This makes it easier to bend the pieces into the correct shape.
  • A wider boat is better: it creates better buoyancy to prevent you from tipping over so easily. The best width is 18 to 30 inches for a team of 2 sitting canoe style, or 48 inches for 2 people sitting side by side.
  • Long or short?: Although long boats go faster, they are more difficult to turn. Short boats (less than 3 meters) are difficult to keep straight.
  • Best Boat Height: 18 inches is optimal, which provides room for boaters to sit and still paddle over the side of the boat.
  • Sit or lie down?: Sitting is comfortable, but boat racers often want to lie down and paddle with their hands. Lying down is an option, but Hall said they should start the race sitting down.

“We like them to start by being in the boat,” Hall said. “Then if it collapses or sinks, they can turn it over and sit on top of it.”

Surfboard styles are still prohibited

Over the past two decades, Hall has seen a variety of cardboard boat designs on the scene, including one style they’ve banned: the surfboard-style boat. The reason? It just works too well.

“They just shot through the pool really quickly,” Hall said.

It’s no fun when the boats don’t even try to sink, and most of them do.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Only four people can assemble a boat at a time, but that doesn’t mean your team is limited to that. It’s like tag team pro wrestling: a team member can switch with anyone else during the build.

Racing the boats is another matter. Each boat may have only two (no more, no less) riders, and everyone on the boats must be able to swim.

In addition to using paddles, racers may use their hands to move the craft across the pool. If you use your feet and legs to propel yourself, you will be disqualified.

All boats are timed and the fastest time after all heats is considered the winner. A boat must get from one end of the pool to the other with both competitors to be considered a finisher.

But there’s more to this race than just speed. Be creative. Be bizarre. Make something that people will remember, regardless of whether it actually gets five feet into the race without sinking.

The racing categories

  • Fastest finishing time (first, second and third)
  • Most Creative Design (first, second and third)
  • Drives the best (first, second and third)
  • Titanic (most dramatic sinking)

Register your team online

Registration is $5 per boat in advance and $8 per boat on the day of the event. Register your team online with Prattville Parts and Recreation at

Montgomery Advertiser reporter Shannon Heupel talks about what there is to do in the river region. Contact him at [email protected].