At first glance, one might think that a team from West Marine — the giant retailer of boats and marine supplies — that was tasked with building a boat would have an advantage over other competitors.
But as West Marine’s Frank Bush aptly pointed out, the company normally only sells boats. It doesn’t build them.
On Saturday and Sunday during the 25th annual Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival, however, Bush and five of his West Marine co-workers were charged with building a simple wooden boat that would stay afloat during a short jaunt on the Tchefuncte River.
Team West Marine not only succeeded in the task, but its vessel — paddled by Alyssa Maxwell, of Slidell, and Dustin Hitt, of New Orleans — was the fastest of 20 boats entered in the annual Quick ’n’ Dirty Boat Building Contest.
Team West Marine’s entry was named Lucky Seven, which drew upon the fact that the company had entered boats in six previous contests. In fact, it had won the Quick ’n’ Dirty before using the same winning model — a 15-foot pirogue that glided through the water better than any of the other entries. The Lucky Seven was painted gun-metal gray with a gator’s mouth and teeth at its bow.
The pirogue wasn’t exactly intimidating, but it certainly was effective.
Like all other the competitors in the boat-building contest, Maxwell and Hitt paddled their craft downriver and then sailed it back upstream. They were buoyed not only by the team’s boat-building “expertise” but also by the cheers of several thousand spectators who lined the banks of the Tchefuncte and dozens of pleasure craft floating nearby.
“This was a team-building event for us,” Bush said. “I’ve got the manager of Slidell, a manager from Texas, a GM from Texas. It was a great weekend.”
The Quick ’n’ Dirty Boat Building Contest is an annual highlight of the Wooden Boat Festival, which is the primary fundraiser for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, also located in Madisonville.
While more than 100 wooden boats line the river for festival patrons to view, participants in the contest are busy working at the nearby Madisonville Ballpark.
The teams are allowed up to six people, but they have very limited building materials — plywood, a few pieces of lumber, some screws, adhesive, tarpaulin and rope — to build their boats. They have 13 hours over the weekend to complete their work, and then they parade the boats a few short blocks to the river for the race.
This year’s designs, purely the imagination of the competing teams, included models that resembled skiffs, kayaks and work boats as well as the pirogue.
Some years, the boats are more seaworthy than others, and 2014 was one such year. Eighteen of the boats launched on Water Street got off without a hitch, and the majority of those made it back to the wharf with their crews staying dry.
Thomas Mattera and the Santa Charger weren’t so lucky, however. Mattera, the sole person in the catamaran-styled boat his team constructed, capsized only feet from the wharf. It’s a scene not uncommon when amateur craftsmen try to create a floating boat.
“We thought we were going to win easily,” the New Orleans resident said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “The wind kicked up considerably. But really, this is our third year doing this. This was an original design. We may have revolutionized the entire concept of a boat with this one.”
One interesting boat in the contest was built by C-Innovation, a company that builds ROVs, or remotely operated underwater vehicles. It was modeled after a boat built by the Edison Chouest Offshore group of companies, the parent of CI. The guys building the Xtreme, however, are used to sinking things for offshore jobs, as opposed to building boats that stay afloat.
“Xtreme is the new sub coming out this year,” team member Tony Galiouras said. “The parent company builds ships, but we’re subsea. So, we’re kind of winging it.”
It was the first Quick ’n’ Dirty Boat Building Contest for Team CI, but as event manager Louise Saenz said, many teams return annually to compete. Twenty-three teams applied for this year’s contest, but only 20 teams can take part each year.
“The teams all are really excited to do this, and they come back year after year to ‘perfect their skills,’ ” Saenz said. “Last year, out of 20 teams, I think five fell apart. They sink, they fall out of the boats, whatever. But it’s great fun, and it’s a great part of what the festival is about — to promote maritime culture in south Louisiana.”