As the six-man crew of Childs Play, a boat made solely of cardboard and duct tape, grunted its way to a narrow win Thursday in the Anything That Floats Race, it would be easy to assume that this was the way this quirky and fun race has always gone.
Perhaps, like the fireworks, power boat races and, more recently, the sand sculpture, the float race was an event people planned to attend every year during the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta.
But Thursday's turnout for Anything That Floats, both in entrants and fan support, represented what the regatta hopes is just the beginning of a renaissance for the race, which once was a major feature of the city's annual rite of summer.
"It was a great tradition that had simply gone away because we weren't paying attention to it," John Bonassi, chairman of the regatta board, said Thursday morning on the banks of the Allegheny River as he waited for the start of the race.
In its heyday, more than a decade ago, the float race attracted dozens of contestants -- it would be unfair to call them sailors, given the race's parameters and frequent outcome -- even if not all of the vessels, well, floated.
"About a third of them back then would disintegrate right after they got in the water," Mr. Bonassi, a business consultant in private life, said with a laugh. The regatta even encouraged such bad engineering: The race's awards include one for Fastest Sinker.
Guided by the rule that "Your craft MUST NOT be designed or built to travel on the water any further than the length of the [500-yard] race course," the race was a major event in the then-weeklong regatta.
Thirty or more boats were entered, and thousands of people lined the Downtown-side of the Allegheny River to watch and see if any of them would make it to the finish line.
But over time, as the regatta dealt with other issues, including financial troubles and consolidating with Pittsburgh's Fourth of July celebration, interest from the regatta and from the participants, sank.
Last year was the low point. Just four teams entered, and the crowd of spectators was equally small.
Mr. Bonassi said he and Joe Kirk, vice chairman of the regatta board, together decided they had to try to "bring it back to the original grandeur."
Being businessmen, they quickly figured that one easy way to increase participants would be to entice them. They rounded up $5,000 for prize money.
To keep the race fun, they decided to award the money not to those who finished first, second or third, but to the charities of the top finishers' choice.
The enticement worked.
On Thursday, 10 participants -- more than double last year's count -- took part in the race, which now runs on the north side of the Allegheny River from roughly PNC Park to Heinz Field.
"We're going to build on this," said Zachary Verona, who organized the race for the regatta this year. "Hopefully, we'll have even more next year."
Thursday's top finishers were: first, the six-man team of Childs Play, whose crew all work for Eyetique, the local eyewear branch, and will donate its $2,500 to the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team; second, Land Ho, whose five-person team of sisters and boyfriends from Rome, N.Y., were coming for Saturday's Taylor Swift concert and to visit relatives but decided on their Pittsburgh aunt's advice to try the boat race, building one that largely relied on an inflatable mattress, and ended up winning $1,500 for Highmark's Caring Place; and, third, True Breeze, with a teenage crew of two friends from West Mifflin, Dylan Butler and Cameron Short, who built a boat with pontoons made out of one-gallon plastic milk jugs and won $1,000 for the Animal Rescue League.
Brad Childs, captain of the Childs Play crew, attributed his team's win to his decision to steer farther from shore right away to catch the swifter current there -- a current so swift that the regatta's Dragon Boat races were canceled for later Thursday.
Still, it wasn't as easy as it looked.
Because of the decision to steer to the center of the current, "we got in a fight out there, then, we almost had a mutiny, and then a catastrophic equipment failure," he said with a smile, "but we stuck together and we won for the charity."
And next year?
"We're coming back," he said.
This year's regatta ended Thursday with fireworks for the second night in a row following concerts in Point State Park and power boat races on the Allegheny River.
Two natives of Ireland were among those watching the fireworks Thursday night, the first Fourth of July celebration in Pittsburgh for both of them, even though one now lives in Beaver County.
Helen Twomey, 51, has been visiting from Ireland since May and said she was happy to attend the festivities before she leaves next week.
"I'm just delighted," she said.
Her friend, Kevin McCarthy, 51, who lives in Aliquippa, acknowledged, "I've been here 19 years, but I've never been to see the fireworks."
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579. Molly Born contributed. First Published July 5, 2013 4:00 AM