Boat burning returns to Homecoming Week

Photo from 1964 Ibis Yearbook
Photo from 1964 Ibis Yearbook

Along the shores of Lake Osceola one of UM’s most treasured traditions will burn bright once again this week. This Friday at 9 p.m. the beloved boat burning will bring crowds to the lake at the height of Homecoming festivities.

The boat burning is just one aspect of the Hurricane Howl celebration, which also includes the singing of the Alma Mater, and a spectacular fireworks display.

“The boat burning is a favorite event and kicks off the beginning of Hurricane Howl,” said Laura Stott, director of student activities and organizations. “It’s tradition, and holds great memory for many students.”

Though the event is a favorite memory of many, the history behind it is relatively unknown.

The boat burning began in 1956 as an effort to promote a new fraternity, Theta Chi. Director of the Student Union Norman A. Whitten envisioned a student-run event that would commemorate the 30th anniversary of Homecoming Week. The fraternity lit an old boat to symbolize the spirit and enthusiasm of the Hurricanes before their big game against the Pittsburgh Panthers.

“The university was not very old and the boat burning was an important attempt at trying to build solid traditions,” said Dr. William Butler, former vice president for Student Affairs.

Originally Theta Chi staged a cannon fight by firing the Sigma Chi fraternity’s famed cannon, “Touchdown Tommy,” while simultaneously lighting the boat from the water.

The tradition has become that if the mast of the boat should hit water before the boat sinks, then the Canes will win the Homecoming game.

“I found the tradition to be unique and exciting,” said Richard Walker, associate vice president for Student Affairs. “My favorite boat burning memory was actually the first one I witnessed which was Homecoming 1987. I remember thinking to myself, what an awesome display of UM spirit and tradition.”

After many years of the tradition, several burned boats had settled on the bottom of Lake Osceola, giving cause for environmental concern. During the 1960s the boats were raised and the student-run event was changed to be more environmentally friendly.

“Once worries of the pollution grew, the boat burning began to be scaled back a lot,” said Gayle Sheeder, senior administrative assistant in the Office of the Dean of Students who has worked at UM since 1966. “Before that, each boat burning was bigger than the last. It was quite the spectacle.”

Not every boat burning has been successful. Last year’s never occurred. A member of the contracted company that assisted with the event was found to be at fault.

“I was incredibly disappointed that during my freshman year I didn’t get to experience one of UM’s greatest traditions,” sophmore Dan Pyott said.

Thousands of members of the Hurricane community have experienced the excitement of the boat burning ceremony. Many hope that this Friday, the mast will break and forecast a Hurricane victory over the Virginia Cavaliers.