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Wacky! Human-powered, kinetic craft hit the road

\"Time Machine,\" built and operated by the Tempus Fugitives team, was last year's Grand Champion in the Kinetic Grand Championship in Humboldt County, Calif.
\"Time Machine,\" built and operated by the Tempus Fugitives team, was last year's Grand Champion in the Kinetic Grand Championship in Humboldt County, Calif.Tina Kerrigan Photography

As millions of Americans prepare to hit the road this holiday weekend, some intrepid souls are taking a decidedly different tack. From Arcata, Calif., to Key West, Fla., they’re building unique vehicles, racing them over hill and dale (and bay) and celebrating the joy of human-powered travel.

Along the way, those celebrations may earn the highly coveted honor of being named Overhead Bin’s Weird Festival of the Month for May.

Consider, for example, the Kinetic Grand Championship in Humboldt County, Calif. Now in its 44th year, the three-day “Triathlon of the Art World” (May 26–28) invites teams to build human-powered “kinetic sculptures” and race them over 42 miles of roads, beaches and the waters of Humboldt Bay.

“We’re a unique little pocket of the world,” said Emma Breacain of Kinetic Universe, which organizes the event. “We have a lot of tolerance for quirks.”

According to Breacain, the quirk in question — transforming old bicycles and other “junk” into moveable works of art and racing them — dates back to 1969 when Hobart Brown, a local artist and gallery owner, added two wheels and other repurposed materials to his son’s tricycle and called it a “pentacycle.”

A friend challenged him to a race; several others took up the challenge with their own “kinetic kontraptions,” and a tradition was born. Expanded over the years, the event now runs from Arcata to Eureka to Ferndale and requires teams to transform their crafts mid-race as they traverse roads, sand dunes and various bodies of water.

“I can’t tell you how many iPods there must be on the bottom of Humboldt Bay,” said Breacain. Presumably, the owners of those music players were contenders for several awards, including best flip and biggest splash, but also-rans for others, such as fastest and best engineering.

The festivities, which draw approximately 50 teams and 5,000 to 10,000 spectators, have proven so popular that they’ve spawned similar events across the country. Earlier this month, Baltimore and Philadelphia held their own kinetic sculpture races, with upcoming events scheduled in Corvallis and Klamath Falls, Ore., in July.

In the meantime, a different sort of creative competition — or is that competitive creativity? — will be on display this weekend across the continent in Key West, Fla. On Sunday, May 27, intrepid boatbuilder/sailors will take to the waters of Key West Bight in the 21st Annual Schooner Wharf Minimal Regatta.

How minimal? The materials entrants can use to build their boats, including paddles, are limited to one sheet of 4’ x 8’ plywood, two eight-foot 2 x 4s, one pound of fasteners and a roll of duct tape. No caulk or adhesive is allowed although painting of the hull — the bolder, the better — is encouraged.

According to Evalena Worthington, co-owner of regatta-sponsor Schooner Wharf Bar, boats compete in one of two categories: canoe/kayaks built for speed and “open design” models that open the door to all manner of watercraft with wild paint jobs and names we can’t print here.

The event typically draws 40 to 45 entrants and as many as 3,000 spectators, with prizes awarded for speed, design, costumes, sportsmanship and the crowd-pleasing Sinker Award. “There’s a lot of competition for that one,” said Worthington.

Subpar seamanship aside, the event also has a more serious side, with the proceeds from this year’s entry fees helping support a “Wounded Warrior” cruise for injured veterans sponsored the 46th Special Forces Company Association.

“Entrants get T-shirts and beer and they get to feel good about the money going to a good cause,” said Worthington. “It’s Memorial Day weekend so it’s especially fitting.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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