ST. JOSEPH — Julie Laurent didn’t attempt to hide her smile Thursday when the crowd began cheering as the first cardboard boat and its passengers made its way across the St. Joseph River.

Laurent, a senior manager of Volunteer United, was among hundreds of others who gathered along the outer rim of The Inn at Harbor Shores to watch participants attempt to paddle past buoys in Whirlpool Corp.’s fourth annual Rock the Boat cardboard boat races.

A record 75 boats competed in the annual event that benefits United Way of Southwest Michigan. Prior to the start of Thursday’s race, the community had raised more than $100,000, Laurent said.

“The bottom line is, every dollar raised at this event goes to help the people of Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties,” Laurent said.

The life-size boats – made of cardboard, duct tape and polyurethane – were powered entirely by human paddling.

The event, which was created by a Whirlpool employee in 2016, produced only five cardboard boats in its inaugural race. However, Rock the Boat has grown each year with 30 boats in 2017, 64 boats in 2018 and 75 this year.

“The first year it was small. We knew it was something that could not only bring the whole community together, but could tap into people’s creativity and love of being on the waterfront,” Laurent said. “Every year the boats have gotten so much more creative.”

Among the more creative boats this year was the one fashioned by the Starks Family Funeral Homes team. The boat, which was named “No Wake,” was black and in the shape of a coffin.

Olivia Starks, funeral director and part owner of Starks Family Funeral Homes, said it was their first time taking part in the annual cardboard race.

It took team members about a month to build the boat.

“We are a funeral home and wanted to add some humor to it,” Starks said. “We constructed a coffin. The difference between a coffin and a casket is a casket has four sides and a coffin has six.”

AEP Cook Nuclear Power Plant’s team took a nautical route for its boat’s theme.

Megan Chouinard, a maintenance manager at Cook, said they worked on the boat off and on for eight weeks. Referred to as “Cook Conscripts,” the boat resembled a pirate ship with several accessories, which included a flag, an anchor, a mermaid skeleton, a crow’s nest and gold coins.

“We wanted to have something that looked very much like a boat,” Chouinard said. “Someone suggested Peter Pan, so we made it resemble Captain Hook’s pirate ship.”

The public was able to vote for their favorite teams and boats leading up to the event. There was a People’s Choice Award for voting prior to the race and the Traveling Trophy that was handed out to the fastest boat.

United Way’s boat was dubbed “Eckto 1,” based off the vehicle that was used in the “Ghostbusters” movie.

In previous races, Untied Way built a replica of the Titanic, a boat that resembled Wrigley Field and an iteration of the DeLorean from the movie, “Back to the Future.”

Laurent said it took the United Way team about three weeks to build this year’s boat.

Contact:, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski