The Scout Raft Race

When I was in the scouts the "dirty dozen" prided themselves on their resourcefulness. I think that we would be the first to admit that we were not the greatest troop in the world, in terms of ability, but we gave it a go, and we had fun trying. Part of this was an attitude not to take it all to seriously. This came in handy when it was Scout Raft Race day!

Preparation started early. Plans were drawn, ideas were discussed and raw materials were collected. Our plans for breaking the world speed record on water were hampered somewhat by the construction materials. But we remained confident. 2 50-gallon steel barrels, 20 feet of 4 by 2 scrap wood, 15 feet of steel piping and several yards of steel threaded rod. With the exception of the barrels not really items you'd associate with rafts. But with the huge buoyancy of the 50-gallon Molasses barrels we were confident that flotation would not be an issue (as it turned out, although this was clearly a mistake, it was not the biggest we were to make).

The majority of the building took place a couple of weekends before round at my house. DT (scout leader) and Chris (the retired cabinet maker from next door) were the main players in the construction phase. The barrels were drained of Molasses and bolted to the 2x4 wooden chassis using the threaded rod. Footrests were made from the steel tubing and also bolted in to position. Seats were then made from the remaining wood, and all was secured in position using an assortment of screws (Chris said that he would've preferred dovetail joints but we said that it really wasn't worth it).

At the end of Day 1 we thought we had better test it out so decided to carry it to our local lake, just round the corner. This proved to be easier said than done; as between the six of us we could barely lift it. I think this was a combination of the Molasses, which must have congealed in the barrels and set solid, and the sheer weight of ironwork in the raft itself. However we were not deterred and using two sack trucks and all six of us to steady it, we wheeled the "titanic" down my driveway. Even before we had got it down the drive one of the trolley wheels had burnt out, and meant that the two on that corner had the back-breaking task of carrying the whole thing the 400 yards to the lake. When we got there, getting the thing out into the water was not that simple a task either. Most sailing clubs have jetties as dedicated launching areas. Our local pond does not - it's just a pond. So two of us had to do the decent thing, and roll up our trousers and wade in, and then try and support the immense structure as we slid it off the remains of the now bent-and-twisted sack trucks....

We were all quite surprised when the raft failed to float. Its enormous weight and the twinges in our lower backs should have given us a clue, in fact looking back I really don't know why any of us thought it could ever to float. Maybe we were all so pleased about the superb build quality that we lost the bigger picture, but the net result was a 2 tonne raft that didn't float with no-one on it, let alone with 4 strapping scouts. The lightest man was selected to trial the thing and if my memory serves "Grouby" slid out on to the back seat. I am not too sure how glad he was of the re-enforced super strong steel foot rests but they really did look quite professional. They were mounted nice and high for the ultimate rowing position, this also (of course) had the effect of raising the centre of gravity yet further, which meant any sideways movement from "Grouby" resulted in a sickening listing of the raft, actually to, and then past 45 degrees with worrying speed. It was at this point that the Park warden "Phut-Phutted" over on his moped. Superb timing. Obviously we should not have been putting a boat out onto the lake anyway, but the fact that at that moment it looked like we were just dumping an enormous amount of scrap metal into the bottom of the lake, just added to our worry as the park warden removed his helmet.

In the end he saw the funny side, and just mentioned the words "back to" and "drawing board", which was harsh but fair. The actual reason for his visit was to look for kids who were throwing stones at swans. There was no mention of scrap metal so we were in the clear, and having removed the boat from the depths, we eagerly discussed potential improvements. 2 of us went off to find some plastic water barrels for extra buoyancy whilst the others stood guard over the raft. With 6 extra 10 gallon barrels buoyancy was improved to the point of the boat actually floating with 1 person on it, so outriggers were added with yet more plastic water barrels for extra buoyancy. Giving the impression of a Childs bike with stabilisers. This heavily restricted our rowing action but at least it meant that the raft wouldn't sink each time any of us breathed.

With the final design decided, "Race Day" soon arrived and we had to arrange transportation of the beast, luckily the scout trailer had a 1.5 tonne payload and we guessed this to be just enough. The raft went in the trailer with plenty of room to spare, so we just crammed in as many spare plastic water barrels as we could find, so as not to be caught out once we go there. Grouby, Phil, Myself and my mate Chris (on loan for the day from the 18th Swindon) piled in the car and off we went.

Soon after we arrived at the venue, we realised that no one had fastened our emergency flotation support down (plastic barrels). This meant as soon as we got up speed along the motorway, they had all blown out of the back of the trailer and were, along with our raft, now absolutely useless. However, as ever resourceful, we managed to locate a couple of spare barrels and prepared our craft. It was at this point that we realised that along with the lightweight plastic barrels, a couple of the oars had been lost "en-route" but we were able to make do with some dinghy ones loaned from the organisers.

This gave us, the first chance to see what the other groups had produced. One team was using 25 plastic containers and what looked like a fishing net to hold them all together. Another team had built what looked like a 4 massive barrels all tied together. As we were looking over one of the smallest guys on their team just leaned into the back of their trailer and pulled it out. Meanwhile we were all limbering up ready to heft the 2 tonne monster from the back of the trailer.

At this point I don't know why we didn't turn round and go home. But we didn't. We "floated" the raft out onto the water and of course it immediately sank. All 4 of us then got on it, and it was pushed yet further into the mud that made up the bottom of the course. Basically it was a joke, and some quick rethinking was necessary. This came in the form of Phil jumping out, swimming round underneath the boat and then carrying the whole lot on his shoulders whilst walking the course with the rest of us 3 sitting on top pretending to row. Throughout all of this all we could see was Phil's head above the water, accompanied by an equally weird sound...

Needless to say we didn't win. Anything. However at the end everyone had a massive water fight, that involved all the rafts being turned upside down / broken up / thrown at each other. Our one minor triumph of the day was when they all gave up trying to break ours up, and turn it upside down, as it was a) already touching the bottom b) indestructible c) far too heavy.