Of all the vessels in the Buffalo River on Monday morning, Marcus Gillebaard probably had the tiniest.
As the Navy's new hulking USS Little Rock warship sailed past to dock at Canalside, Gillebaard paddled nearby in a wooden kayak he and a friend fashioned to look like the original World War II-era USS Little Rock.
Gillebaard, of North Tonawanda, built this craft two summers ago to resemble the guided-missile cruiser that's on display at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.
As the new soon-to-be-commissioned USS Little Rock arrived at the Buffalo waterfront Monday moning, Gillebaard was paddling close enough to see it but also had to keep his distance from the nearly 400-foot warship.
Crews on the Coast Guard and Buffalo police boats floating nearby told him he had to be out of the channel when the ship arrived, but he could stay near the Buffalo Lighthouse. The current kept pulling him toward the channel, and he kept paddling to stay in place.
"I got a front-row view," he said. "It was just beautiful."
Gillebaard built the kayak with his friend, Gregory Lund of Clarence, as part of a boat-building competition during the 2016 Canal Fest of the Tonawandas.
The friends, who both work as engineers for CSX, have been building boats together for about 12 years as part of the Sikaflex Challenge "Build-a-Boat" events at Canal Fest.
"We're both do-it-yourselfers and we're both transportation buffs," Gillebaard said.
Contestants can use three sheets of plywood and five other pieces of lumber to make the hull and the paddles. They are given four hours to make the hull, but they can't use nails or screws – only an adhesive.
After the hull is finished, contestants can take their vessels home to add detail. It took about 12 more hours of work to make the kayak look like the old USS Little Rock, he said.
At the end of Canal Fest, contestants race their vessels in Gateway Harbor. There's also a demolition derby where they see which boat is the last to sink. Gillebaard and Lund participated in the demolition derby with the Little Rock – which has its own water cannon that shoots up to 30 feet – but then they did some restoration work to get it back into shape.
In all, Gillebaard said he still has four of the boats he's built over the last dozen years, including a version of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Some of their other creations include a fire-breathing dragon boat, as well as a replica of the Titanic – complete with a foam iceberg tethered to the ship. One year they made a Somali pirate boat and used super soaker squirt guns to commandeer a pleasure boat, he said.
Once you paddle in a tricked-out kayak like the ones he makes, you don't ever want to go back to a regular boat, Gillebaard said.
Onlookers might smile and wave when they see paddlers in an ordinary kayak.
"But when they see my boats, they say, 'What the heck?'" he said.
For Canal Fest next year, Gillebaard said he hasn't settled on a design but said he's always thought about trying to build a working submarine. He's collaborated in the past with a team of builders skilled at airtight compartments, he said.
Gillebaard admitted that sounds kind of crazy.
"We do it for the fun of building it," he said, "and to put a smile on people's faces."