As Sunday’s Canal Fest of the Tonawandas approaches, boating tinkerer Marcus Gillebaard has high hopes for big crowds and a wild race and battle of far-out creations at the 33rd annual build-a-boat-with-plywood-and-glue contest.
The “Sika Challenge Cup,” with a finale paddle dash at 6 p.m. Saturday, July 23, usually attracts 30 teams with memorable floating contraptions that fight it out in a chaotic demolition-derby-like race to survive attacks from other racers and make it a 100-yards to the finish.
Gillebaard's favorites from past competitions include a canoe-sized tug boat belching orange smoke and a nearly unsinkable grass-hut raft with sealed air chambers below the lawn chairs and cooler.
“I’d love to make it bigger. I would love to see at least 40 teams every year. The more boats, the better,” said Gillebaard, the unofficial spokesman of the contest who once won best design for his miniature S.S. Minnow from Gilligan's Island.
The boat-building starts as people sign up and begin building at 2 p.m. this Sunday, July 17. Every night through Thursday, teams come in shifts, working from 6 to 10 p.m. to build their hulls with three pieces of plywood and Sikaflex marine glue within a 4-hour deadline at the staging ground next to the Long Homestead on East Niagara Street in Tonawanda.
No screws or nails are allowed. Instead most use wire or nylon zip ties to hold their boats together for the 24 hours it takes for the glue to cure. Once it dries, the ties come off and teams use their extra tubes of Sikaflex to seal the last of the holes.
After the hull is set, builders can work at home and decorate, design and add on so long as they don't change the original hull at the core. Finished work debuts at 5 p.m., an hour before the 6 p.m. race Saturday, July 23 at Gateway Harbor, the old Erie Canal channel.
"It's very habit forming," Gillebaard said. "Some of us keep building, year after year after year."
Once the race starts, so does the repairing. Then comes the battle of boats and crew of sunken vessels. "They're all swimming towards you just like alligators," said Gillebaard. “It really is amazing that our boats hold together. We bring a caulk gun. If we spring a leak, we can seal it immediately.”
Trophies are given out for best design, fastest to build and also first, second and third to the finish.
Gillebaard got hooked, after years of watching from shore, when he built his first flame-spewing dragon boat with his son Marcus Jr. 10 years ago.
In the years since, Gillebaard, Sr., partnered with Gregory Lund, a fellow locomotive engineer and co-worker at CSX Transportation.
“We’re both do-it-yourselfers,” said Gillebaard. “Once we found how easy it was to build a flat bottomed boat, we kept modifying designs after that.”
One of his favorites was their 2009 pirate ship, which took an onlooking pleasure boat “hostage” until another glue-boat, posing as a Navy ship, made a rescue to the cheers of spectators lining the shore.
“The people were so patriotic,” he said.
Because of his enthusiastic creativity, organizers Paul Krause and Bill Jacob put Gillebaard in an unofficial “avant garde” category of his own.
He usually tries to design something from pop culture or the news. This year’s idea came after he heard the Navy was making an updated stealth version of the retired 1945-era USS Little Rock now parked at Canalside in Buffalo.
Gillebaard and Lund are among the three teams making three miniature plywood imitations: The new stealth ship, an actual “little rock” and Gillebaard and Lund’s take on the original.
“We’re going to have water cannons and possibly flame throwers,” he said. “We just build crazy stuff.”
Want to build a boat?
There's an $85 dollar entrance fee per team. Show up and the fill out the entry anytime after 2 p.m. Sunday at the staging ground next to the Long Homestead on East Niagara Street.
For more information and the rules for the race, go to: canalfest.org/cftsikacup.pdf. Call Gillebaard at 716-807-9229 with questions.
Want to watch the boat demolition derby?
Be in place by 6 p.m. Sunday July 23. Find a spot anywhere by the Long Homestead or the bridges around both sides of the Erie Canal at Gateway Harbor in Tonawanda and North Tonawanda.