Engineering Meets Art

Spotted in the Baltimore Harbor: A giant stork, a goat-man, a couch on wheels and a 35-foot-long crocodile. 

This may sound like the start of a wild bedtime story, but it’s no tall tale. It’s the annual Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race, a parade of sorts, but with floats pulled by people instead of flatbeds, and a parade route that’s more like an obstacle course. It’s a competition to see which sculptures make it to the end without falling apart.

So what is a kinetic sculpture? According to race officials, it’s “a work of art which is also an all-terrain vehicle that is human-powered and can endure a course of fifteen miles through land, mud, sand and harbor.”

But there’s more! Each kinetic sculpture is also expected to be visually creative, as well as functional. And it must incorporate the 2016 race theme­—“Urban Myths & Monsters.”

On this Saturday in May 2016, hundreds are gathered at the Canton waterfront in Southeast Baltimore, waiting for the sculptures to arrive from the starting line at the American Visionary Art Museum in Federal Hill.

Some watch from lawn chairs, a few sailboats drift around to catch a glimpse, and the water taxi brings additional spectators.

More than 30 human-powered contraptions have already traveled on some of Baltimore’s busiest streets. Now they’ll meet a new challenge: an exhilarating trip down Canton’s public boat ramp, and a big splash when they hit the water.

For the teams who work all year to design and build the sculptures, it’s the moment of truth: Will it withstand the impact? quickly followed by, Will it float?

In case the answer is no, Baltimore EMTs, the city fire boat and a flotilla of kayaking volunteers are all standing by.

They won’t be afloat for long. One by one, each sculpture’s pilot steers into the 58-degree water as throngs of spectators cheer them on. Pilots must maneuver around a short floating dock, and ascend the ramp on the other side.

Some fare better than others. Dr. Disaster’s Spin Cycle is rigged with pontoons that feature spinning tentacles made from pool noodles. Its unusual mechanics earn it the Golden Flipper award for most interesting water entry.

The Da Vinci Dogs sculpture, inspired by Da Vinci’s Demons, breaks in two and sends all three macho pilots into the drink. The crowd roars. Somehow, they defy the odds and go on to win the Speed award at the end of the day.

The grand finale of the water obstacle is the fan favorite, Tick Tock the Croc. At 35 feet, it’s as long as a generous cabin cruiser. It features jaws that open and shut, and a sound system blasting Crocodile Rock.

When the teams finally drag their waterlogged sculptures out of the harbor, the race is far from over: They’ll continue north to Patterson Park, where mud and sand pits await.

The grueling course doesn’t deter dozens of teams from entering each year. One team I meet on the course is made up of former spectators who once said, “We could do that!” This year, their sculpture is a giant beehive called “The Bee’s Knees,” built from materials found in their own recycling bins and painted yellow. 

Race director Theresa Segreti says everyone who sees the quirky race wants to be part of it. And she explains, “That’s just the spirit of the Kinetic Sculpture Race: ordinary people doing something amazing with the materials they have around them.”

—Meg Walburn Viviano