The LETSGO canoe in action

Civil engineering students race concrete canoes

Students from around the world gathered at the University of Texas recently for the final of the annual American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) National Concrete Canoe Challenge (NCCC).

In a test of both engineering ingenuity and physical fitness, students teams were tasked with researching, designing and constructing concrete canoes over the course of an academic year, with the top three teams awarded trophies and educational scholarships.

Designed to give civil engineering students the opportunity to gain practical experience and leadership skills by working with concrete mix design and project management, the competition is broken down into four equal parts. These are the engineering design and construction principles used, a technical design report detailing the planning, development, testing and construction of the canoe, a formal business presentation and the performance of the canoe in five different race events.

Open to all of the 286 domestic and international ASCE student chapters at national level, and with non-members invited to participate up to regional level, this year saw over 200 teams of civil engineering students take part.

“I love watching these students embrace the challenge of creating these floating masterpieces,” said Norma Jean Mattei, president-elect of the ASCE. “The teamwork, leadership, creativity and skills they display are truly impressive,” she enthuses.

The history of concrete boat building dates back to 1848 when Joseph Lewis Lambot built thin-walled reinforced concrete boats for use at his estate in Miraval, France; concrete was also used to build barges during World War II when steel supplies were scarce. 

The idea of concrete canoeing began in America in the 1960s when a small number of ASCE student chapters began holding intramural concrete canoe races as a form of educational fun and competition. By the 1970s the popularity of the activity spread and regional competitions began; the first national event was held in 1988.

Although the format of the competition has remained largely unchanged over the years, the ASCE has seen the knowledge, skill and ability of the participants improve significantly alongside technical advances. 

“Technological improvements, including the use of computer-aided design, analytics and new concrete mix technologies have let to today’s sleek, lightweight and manoeuvrable canoes,” notes Leslie Payne, ASCE director of student and younger member programs.

Each year students log thousands of hours on their projects, and the challenges they face are many.

“The project is a year-long endeavour beginning in the late summer and lasting until March or April,” Payne explained. “Project management involves human resources, financial resources, time constraints, and of course the technical process for designing, creating a mould or form, setting the concrete, and preparing the surface to make a beautiful canoe.”

In order to participate, the teams’ canoes cannot be over 22 feet in length or 36 inches in width. To be able to float they need to be less dense than water, which means creating the perfect concrete mix, however, there are extensive rules dictating the type of mixes allowed, plus the canoes must pass rigorous flotation tests before being allowed to race.

However, the challenges don’t end there.

“Many things can go wrong at any stage of the process, and both people and the product can be affected,” Payne notes. “In addition, students must travel with their canoe to regional and national race sites, ensuring that their canoe is expertly protected to prevent cracking or breaking along the way.

“Racing canoes takes practice and many teams spend hours learning how to paddle and manoeuvre. Finally, during the races, accidents, mishaps and sometimes sinking occurs. Those that make it to the National Concrete Canoe Competition have outperformed and outlasted many competitors to get to the final contest. The winners are truly the best of the best.”

Finalists often go above and beyond when it comes to their designs, not only creating a functional boat, but a beautiful one, as Payne highlights.

“I’ve seen some of the most colourful and beautiful canoes, with elaborate stain finishes and creative displays. They are incredible, and functional, works of art. I’ve also seen crazy innovations, such as this year’s University of Texas canoe, which is fabricated in two parts and assembled for race day. Both beauty and innovation are integral to the competition.”

This year, first prize in the NCCC went to the team from École de Technologie Supérieure, Montreal, for its canoe entitled ‘LETSGO’. The team was made up of 35 undergraduate and postgrad students, and the university has been participating in this competition for over 20 years.

In total the students put more than 5,000 hours into their project to develop a Lego-themed canoe.

“The Lego theme was chosen for its simple shapes and colour – it was easy to implement since paint and stain was forbidden this year. These new rules pushed us to develop two new specialty concrete mixtures giving a glassy finish to our canoe,” says team captain Valerie Ducharme.

“Our major innovation was implementing sustainability in all spheres of the project,” she continues. “We calculated our impact, limited it as much as possible and compensated the rest by planting new trees on our campus.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the team as the canoe had a puncture during the men’s endurance race. Water gradually coming into the hull caused instability during the following events. Then, in the final race, the canoe suffered a major collision, causing cracking. Despite this the team placed well.

“In the end our team finished second in the overall racing scoring, making us very proud as our Canadian climate stops us from being able to practice all year,” Ducharme said.

The judges agreed that the students from École de Technologie Supérieure were worthy winners, as Claude Goguen, one of the five judges noted: “What stuck out the most to me was, not only did they have a quality product and work extremely hard on their design paper and presentation, it was their excitement and their dedication – you could see it on their faces.

“The way they acted, you could tell they really wanted it. I’m very happy for them.”

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