Review: Recyclable Boat Races


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Human ingenuity and perseverance are not measured by the number of skyscrapers we construct, the number of diseases our medical field learns to combat, or the number of different iPhones we design and sell for $749.99.

No, the real measure of humanity’s drive, of our passion, of our grit, of our success as a species, is our ability to strap garbage together with duct tape and paddle it across a pool.

After the exit of what looked to be a youth swim class — young children practicing in 4 feet of warm water — the atmosphere at this year’s Homecoming Recyclable Boat Races grew intense. The Field House’s swimming area was full of adults, boat crews, and spectators, and the air was sweltering with the smell and heat of competition, which, interestingly enough, felt like a mixture of humidity and chlorine.

The first people I talked to struggled to fit their craft through the door. The University of Iowa Environmental Coalition members assured me that their boat, a cube, was by far the most recycled and sustainably built of the bunch, explaining that their materials had been scavenged. I believed them, and I imagined — because of the ship’s sustainable nature — the pool instantaneously recycling it into a diving board the second it hit the water. I wished them luck.

The people from the College of Pharmacy was much more receptive to my sarcasm, and they estimated that their vessel, a pontoon of sorts, standing more than 5 feet tall and modeled after a battleship, could withstand a tsunami and that it traveled at a speed of around 12 knots. Astounding. The USS Pharmacy’s bow had a spot for the captain/pilot, Katherine Reynolds of the pharmacy school, to sit and paddle. I had doubts about its ability to stay upright, but like Bank of America, it was perhaps too big to fail. 

Having watched Titanic four times in my life, I grew nervous by the grandiose size of the USS Pharmacy and walked up a few bleachers to ask the lifeguards on duty how a rescue in a warm, clear pool would compare to rescuing the crew of a capsized boat at sea. They spent several minutes seriously reassuring me that nothing could go wrong, citing a number of factors such as the water being shallow and wave-less.

I sat down to take notes. As I scribbled away, I again noticed a boat sitting by its lonesome past all of the other groups, unattended and menacing. It had been this way, alone, for the entire time I had been there, a whole 14 minutes. It looked very ominous, very polygonal, a Dark Horse with sharp points and edges. Katy Perry started playing in my head. Who owned this onyx beast?

I walked up to the check-in table to investigate. There were nine teams listed: Campus Activities Board, UI Environmental Coalition, Hawkeye TKD, UI DM, College of Pharmacy, CIC, UI Robotics Club, OASIS, Hillcrest. The Robotics Club,? What kind of tactical circuitry and ahead-of-their-time mechanics had they incorporated in their boat? I had to find out. I asked Libby Hewitt, one of the Homecoming representatives at the table, which group they were.

She had no idea and stood up on the back bleacher to summon the club for me with a megaphone. I had never felt more important in my entire life. They sat well below, nearest to the water. I asked which vessel was theirs and was shocked (and relieved) to find out it was the mysterious evil boat with sharp edges. They described the design to me, how it included a bottom fin for stability.

They had considered placing a turret on the vessel but eventually decided against the idea. A disappointment. One of their supporters, a friend who hadn’t been part of the construction, Zach Swanson, showed up in the middle of the interview; he described everything about the day, about life, really, in a simple quote: “I don’t even know which [boat] is ours.”

The races finally started. The trash talking subsided. Everyone was serious, no time for games. All focus. The first heat of the race sort of bolted out of the starting gate, the USS Pharmacy taking several seconds to acclimate itself to the water, eventually paddling out. The UI Environmental Coalition held unsteady at the starting point, the pilot struggling to get in. Either a perfectly square boat is impossible to balance or the water was rejecting the recycled waste.

The gigantic USS Pharmacy finished strong, ahead of the failing competition, an instance that can perhaps be skewed to somehow represent economic oppression of the small by the rich in the United States, if you’re feeling obnoxious enough to explain it and your friends are nice enough to feign listening. If that’s the case, I suppose the stalled Environmental Coalition’s boat represents the country’s refusal to move forward with environmentally sustainable practices. Or the race just happened, and that’s it. But I digress.

The next and final heat featured a craft constructed by a team I hadn’t interviewed. Team Hillcrest, the only residence hall to compete, débuted a boat with a simple design, covered in a thin plastic tarp and paddled by hand. But looks can be deceiving, and the little engine that could finished in the fastest time of the event. Garrett Obenauf climbed up off the boat, let forth toward the crowd a glorious victory roar, and cannonballed back into the pool.

I would later find out that his boat began taking on water halfway through the race, but through an astounding display of optimism and the decision to “go as fast as possible,” he brought home the victory, the Hero of Hillcrest, finishing first of one competing dormitories and ahead of everyone else. Through his victory, we all won, and life got just a little bit better.

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