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Seattle’s Milk Carton Derby is a creative boat-building exercise

These boats are human-powered... and made of milk cartons

Meg van Hugyen

On Saturday, July 14, dozens of DIYers met up to race their handmade watercrafts against each other in the Lucerne Seafair Milk Carton Derby in Green Lake, which is about what it sounds like: people make boats out of milk cartons, show them off, and race them. This quirky event, part of Seattle’s annual Seafair celebration, has grown exponentially since it began in 1972—today, it’s teeming with food trucks, exhibit booths, and live entertainment. It even had a beer garden this year.

Sponsored by Safeway/Albertson’s—by way its private dairy label, Lucerne—the derby is now in its 47th year, awarding cash and trophies not only to the winner of the race but also to the most creative and original boats. It’s essentially a soap box derby on water, although arguably a little less dangerous.

The Mystery Machine races with a cat.

The rules of the derby are strict and numerous: “Boats must be of homemade construction and primary flotation dependent upon milk cartons,” reads one. “Waxing, shellacking or covering the hulls with material such as plastic, packing tape, lamination or metal is not allowed. You may use chicken wire or plastic mesh.”

A milk carton derby entrant shaped like a pirate ship.

“No engines or motors of any kind are allowed,” says another. “Propulsion power or any other kind of stored energy (i.e.: tank filled with compressed air or water) is prohibited. Sails will be for decoration only and not for power. Human power only.”

A flamingo and an adorable robot were integrated into this boat design.
A floating castle.

Most teams use oars or Venetian gondola-style poles in reverence of the human-power-only rule, but a few have gotten creative with it, propelling their boats via cycling, among other methods. Each registered team is eligible to pick up 300 sealed, unused milk cartons at selected Safeway stores, and several boat-building demonstrations are held two months before the competition in order to get the teams informed and inspired. And contrary to the rules—and the event name—it’s been reported that juice cartons are also acceptable building materials.

This boat even showed up on a boat trailer.

There are separate competitions for commercial and nonprofit organizations. In the former, companies pay $250 to compete with a craft featuring their company logo. In the latter, the competition fee is only $25, and the winning team walks away with $250 for its cause. There’s also a youth category, a family category, and a STEM category for science groups and other science and engineering groups, all of which also cost $25 to enter. For $80, you can opt for the eight-person team challenge, wherein Seafair provides the materials and the team has one hour to build a seaworthy craft that’s capable of holding at least four adults.

A banana boat.

Of the businesses and nonprofits that entered, this year’s big winners included perennial competitors Albert Lee Appliances, who took first place in boat design for its floating delivery truck, and America’s Boating Club of Seattle, who snagged first in the non-profit derby race as well as the award for best boat in show with a canoe-like design.

Although they didn’t take home any trophies, honorable mention goes to Lower Queen Anne’s Bayview Retirement Community, the very first team from a retirement community to compete in the Milk Carton Derby in Seafair’s history—the five-person team’s average age was 88. Sadly, on its test run, a crew member slid across the deck, causing the boat to list severely to one side, and they had to be towed back to shore and subsequently had to drop out of the competition. The crew said they still had fun.

Bayview Retirement Community team and boat.

Along with trophies, the 2018 event awarded $3000 in prizes from donors such as Ivar’s, Sand Point Sailing, A la Mode Pies, and Altitude Trampoline Park, and Ezell’s Famous Chicken. Ezell’s in particular is famously generous with their price: The winners of the family category received $1500 in gift cards to the celebrated Seattle-based fried chicken chain.

As well as a fun team-building exercise for companies, the Milk Carton Derby is a cool, quirky outdoor event for kids and families and serves as an interactive science lesson for everyone involved. Keeps those kiddos busy during their vacation too.

Green Lake

, , WA