Design Concepts Start Sinking In

Future engineers build cardboard boats at a camp at Naval Base Ventura County. Some creations succeed, others are all wet.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2003.

By Andy Olsen
Times Staff Writer

For 15-year-old Cedric Parsels, the path to a career in nuclear engineering is strewn with duct tape and plastic wrap.

Milling around a swimming pool at Naval Base Ventura County with some of the military’s finest engineers this week, the Yuma, Ariz., teenager imagined someday designing warships like those that helped topple a dictatorship in Iraq.

But big dreams usually start small. Cedric’s orders: build a boat out of cardboard and a few sheets of plastic.

Cedric and 29 other high school students from around the world spent an afternoon building and racing cardboard boats, part of a six-day construction and engineering camp sponsored by the Society for American Military Engineers. The camp was the first ever at the Port Hueneme facility.

“We want to show them there are engineers in the military,” said Lt. Ryan Rasmussen, the U.S. Naval Academy graduate who organized the camp. “You want to show them that buildings don’t go up by themselves.”

The students are aspiring architects and weapons technicians, youngsters the Navy hopes will someday be the guardians of nuclear propulsion systems and designers of bridges. Launching their first vessels, however, they were more likely to get a paper cut than split an atom.

Using five pieces of 4-by-8-foot cardboard, three rolls of duct tape and some sheets of plastic, the participants attempted to build a boat in three hours capable of carrying a person across a 50- meter pool and back.

Easy, said Cedric, who helped draw up the blueprint for Squad 3’s boat. His teammates crouched on the concrete, fitting cardboard cutouts into the brown hull.

“When people think of a boat they always think of the skin. But it’s what’s inside that counts. The skeleton is what makes it float,” he said.

Across the pool by the deep end, Squad 1 wondered about another intricacy of nautical design — the buoyancy of duct tape. They had almost used up their allotment of three rolls to wrap their prototype, dubbed Noah’s Ark, and were searching for another. A few drops of rain hit the corrugated deck and the work rushed ahead. Luke Bruns, 16, of Naples, Fla., doubted the ark could survive a flood.

“We’re hoping it can float. If it does that, I think we’ll be fine,” he said.

Navy Seabees, along with engineers from the Army and Coast Guard, led the roughly eight-person squads throughout the week. They gave tips, critiqued designs, instructed the teens during computer- simulated firearms training, and helped pitch giant green tents where the campers slept.

Not everything fit the bill of a dream summer vacation, however. The youngsters slept on cots, ate in a galley and crawled out of bed at 5 a.m. each day. But at least those challenges were predictable. Not like sailing in an oversized shoe box.

Even the instructors had never done that before.

Until now the instructors had built “just runways and buildings,” said Tom Carter, a Navy construction mechanic who admitted he wasn’t sure how the race would turn out. “Now we do cardboard boats too. We can add that to our legacy.”

To be sure, the professionals put their heads together and designed a boat too. Carter and more than a dozen military and civilian instructors knelt in the sun with cutting tools and permanent markers, rolling cardboard to build an 8-foot surfboard, which they wrapped in plastic.

Some students, seeing their mentors’ simple design, accused the professionals of cheating. The experts smiled and replied, “One hour left.”

The moments before a cardboard boat regatta are not without tension. Teens peered at rival prototypes, sneering at other designs. “It’ll float, but it won’t go anywhere,” Brian Accardi, 15, of Camarillo, said about a rival squad’s boat.

But when the badgering and bickering calmed, the squads lined up along the edge of the chlorinated surf. Squad 1 cheered and paraded its boat around the pool before setting it in the water. Squad 2 held its breath as pilot Hanna Merkes, 16, of Korea slipped into the water and climbed aboard the Black Pearl, its plastic-wrapped catamaran.

Hanna squealed as the boat’s platform collapsed underneath her and the cardboard began soaking up warm water.

Someone shouted, “Ready, go!” The pool burst with screams and cheering, splashing water and spinning boats.

Cardboard proved difficult to steer with a single oar. One boat crumpled. Another took water into the sealed hull, staining the sides a dark brown.

The surfboard made it home first. One by one the others limped back to shore. Only the front and back ends of Noah’s Ark floated above water, the rest sinking as Luke, the pilot, bailed water with a blue plastic helmet.

Black Pearl took first for speed, though it was later disqualified for partially disintegrating before the race started. Noah’s Ark came in second.

Cedric Parsels, of Squad 3, sighed and smiled. It may not have won for speed, but his boat was still dry inside. “It made it, it made it,” he said to himself.