CARBONDALE — What began as a freshman design project at SIU in the 1960s has grown into a campus and community event that has been copied around the world.

The 39th annual Great Cardboard Boat Regatta drew hundreds of spectators and creative participants to Campus Lake on the SIU campus.

The regatta’s first year was 1974 and was the brainchild of then design professor Richard Archer. As word of the regatta spread, the event was copied worldwide. It is estimated that there are now 3,000 to 4,000 cardboat regattas held around the world each year.

Carbondale’s regatta features multiple classes of boats; mechanical, paddle and built-on-the-spot boats, which compete for the fastest time on the course, according to Jeff Goelz, assistant director of recreational sports and services.

Goelz said the event is a fun, family atmosphere and a longstanding SIU tradition.

“There’s not a lot that SIU and Southern Illinois can brag about,” he said. “This is something that started here and is now all over the world. It’s a unique event.”

“This is the mother load of cardboard boat regattas,” said retired design professor Skip Briggs. Briggs was involved with the regatta for 24 years as a professor. He and his colleague Larry Busch took over the regatta for Archer when he retired and helped keep the tradition alive.

Briggs and Busch also played a role in helping the regatta spread to Europe. The pair of professors went to a college in Holland and held a cardboard boat regatta in a nearby canal.

Briggs said the event drew media attention from all over Europe and became so loved, it’s still held every year.

In addition to competing for first place, there are also side awards, such as best sinking. The captain of the lucky boat that wins that distinction takes home the Titanic Award.

Busch, who is also a retired design professor, has participated in the event since its beginning. He said there have been some colorful attempts to win the Titanic Award.

“One student rigged his boat with some minor explosives, pyrotechnics,” Busch said. “He paddled to the middle of the lake and set it off, was so disappointed that his boat didn’t sink, he stood up and was jumping up and down — then the bottom of his boat ripped out and he just went in.”

Despite the effort, another captain won the Titanic Award that year.

Both Briggs and Busch enjoy the regatta, are proud of its history and want to see the tradition continue.

“I can’t think of anything else that started at SIU that has become a positive tradition around the country,” Busch said. “We’re proud of that.”

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