It wasn’t the busiest Cardboard Boat Race ever, but it was surely the most unusual.
The race has occurred annually at the Baldwin/Freeport Boat Ramp on the first Sunday after Labor Day for 25 years, with the exception of Sept. 13, 2020, which was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. Baldwin’s Ed Phalen started it, ran it for 13 years, and then handed the baton to John Cools, chairman of the Baldwin Sanitation Department.
“We do this event to get more kids interested in the water, living on the coast, doing some learning,” said Cools.
The rules are simple: The boats are made of corrugated box cardboard and held together with duct tape and twine. The double-ended paddles must be handmade, not bought at a store. The racers launch from the shore, paddle around a buoy about 100 feet away, and return.
In the past, the boats have ranged from simple crafts, like the two vessels coated with blue wall paint that Ed Phelan and his grandson Ryan Pastore brought to Sunday’s race, to a Tiki boat with a thatched roof and a pirate boat complete with mast and skull-and-bones pennant.
“I used to do the whole event,” said Phalen. “I made the trophies. Everybody got an award. I signed people up. I went out in the safety boat. Then I quit. Now they’ve got the fire department into it, and John Cools took it over.”
Domenick Pastore, Ryan’s father and Ed’s son-in-law, said his entire family had been involved with the race for at least a decade.
“Ed’s very talented,” said Pastore, “very art-craftsy and he used to make all the trophies. He’d make a sailing ship out of keys and wire and stuff like that. He built me a scuba diver out of wire and little eyes and washers.”
At 90, after 50 years in Baldwin, Phalen is about to move to Myrtle Beach. But he wanted to round out his Cardboard Boat career with one last race. In contrast to past years, when cars and trucks with 10 children’s boats and 20 adult boats typically pulled into the parking lot of the boat ramp, at start time, only Phalen’s and Ryan’s boats sat ready on the blacktop.
“The fire department’s coming with a boat,” said Cools. “The guys are actually at the firehouse right now building it.”
Shortly after, Jay “Cowboy Bob” McGinley, captain of Baldwin Fire Company, Hose 3, arrived. He wore a ten-gallon hat, an orange life vest over his tee shirt, and a cape and shorts decorated like a stylized American flag. In his arms was the World’s Smallest Boat -- about 24 by 36 inches.
Asked if he really thought his creation would float, McGinley said, “You gotta believe.”
And the race was on. Phalen and his grandson soon pulled away from Cowboy Bob, who thrashed valiantly with his paddle while sinking rapidly. By the time the three had reached the buoy, watched over by B. A. Schoen in the safety boat, Ryan had a slight lead over Phalen and only Cowboy Bob’s head was visible.
Phalen beat Ryan by a prow. Cowboy Bob finally arrived onshore, clutching the soggy remains of his boat between his knees.
“You finished your race!” shouted a viewer from the crowd of about 200 that stood cheering on the docks.
“No, he didn’t,” said Schoen, beaching the safety boat. He got out, slapped two drenched squares of cardboard onto the sand, and said, “Now he’s finished his race.”
Cools delivered the awards while the crowd roared their applause.
“It’s a good family thing,” said Baldwin resident Bob Spatara, a longtime fan. “You get a grandkid and say, hey,, let’s build a little boat out of cardboard and take it to the park. People used to throw water balloons at each other during the race, and take squirt guns on board. Some of the boats held 5 people.”
“We usually get a lot of laughs, and you see all the Baldwin people,” said Spatara’s friend, John Werthelman. “It’s a Baldwin thing.”