The unsinkable Concrete Canoe Team

United by a passion for problem-solving, UW undergrads are putting their minds — and paddles — together to build and race a canoe made out of concrete.

Together we will

It’s a brisk spring morning as 15 UW undergraduates haul a canoe toward the shores of Lake Washington. Slowly, they lower the 20-foot-long, 201-pound boat into the water. After a few heart-pounding moments, the canoe stays afloat, and the group erupts into cheers, a fitting celebration considering the material their vessel is made of: concrete.

UW students raise their paddles while aboard a concrete canoe.

Check out more photos from the 2016 regional competition. Photo by Peter Mackenzie-Helnwein

Since 1975, UW students have put their minds — and paddles — together for the UW’s Concrete Canoe Team. Over the course of only a few months, the team’s 40 members design, build and race a canoe against collegiate teams from across the country. Throughout these four decades, the UW team has earned a strong reputation, with 12 regional championships and four top-10 national finishes under their belt. And beyond the competition, Concrete Canoe has created boundless learning opportunities for the students involved.

“With Concrete Canoe, we’re stepping into the unknown,” says Kim Tsai, a senior studying civil and environmental engineering and co-captain of the team. Since building a concrete canoe is, Tsai admits, a “quirky challenge,” the only resources available to the students are universal engineering principles, some elbow grease and the experiences of past teams. “It really is us sitting down and thinking about our basic engineering skills: the dynamics and mechanics that make sense,” she says. “This competition teaches us so much.”

Emboldened by the challenge ahead of them, the team — which is completely student-run, from construction to fundraising to even transporting the canoe across the country — gets down to work in early fall quarter.

Graphic: How do you make concrete float?

The first step is to determine the perfect concrete mix, testing at a rate of about four mixes per week. Next, they tackle the boat’s design and shape, which ultimately determine its performance on the water: While a straighter, skinnier design will help the boat cut through the water, a shorter, wider boat can turn more easily. Finally, the team decides on a theme for their canoe; in keeping with a tradition of paying tribute to the Pacific Northwest, this year’s canoe — dubbed the “Edgewater” — incorporates the industrial-steampunk aesthetic of Seattle’s iconic Gas Works Park.

In April the team headed to the University of Idaho for the Pacific Northwest regional competition. After three days of racing and presenting their canoe design, the months of hard work paid off — the team took first place, extending their regional winning streak to four consecutive years.

Next up? The 2016 National Concrete Canoe Competition at the University of Texas at Tyler in June. While they hope to achieve another top finish, at the end of the day, “this is really about the relationships you make,” says Tsai. Outside of meetings, it’s typical to see senior members mentoring younger students or teammates helping each other with homework. A Concrete Canoe alumni network is also part of the group’s extended family, and many students have landed internships or jobs through the connections. “We joined because building a concrete canoe is an exciting challenge,” Tsai says, “but we stayed because we’ve developed a community.”

Powering Dawg paddlers

For the past two years, the generosity of donors has made it possible for the UW Concrete Canoe Team to participate in the national competition. Learn more about supporting the team and their journey to Texas

More stories