UW News

May 31, 2007

Concrete floats at annual races

UW News

By Hannah Hickey

News & Information

Don’t tell these paddlers that concrete isn’t the best material for building boats. This June, hundreds of civil engineering students from around the country will gather at the UW for the national concrete canoe championships. Known as the “America’s Cup of Civil Engineering,” it’s a test of strength, skill and engineering savvy.

This is the 20th anniversary of the competition sponsored by the American Society of Concrete Engineers. Events kick off Thursday, June 14, when the teams will gather in Red Square to show off their handiwork. Each boat will be weighed and judges will assess the boats’ aesthetic merits. The teams will then “swamp” their canoes in a tank of water to ensure that even when submerged underwater, the boat still floats.

The 22 teams will race on Lake Sammamish on Saturday, June 16. Teams will compete in men’s, women’s and co-ed races, with finals in the afternoon. The ASCE also will host a free Concrete Carnival for kids and their families in celebration of the 20th anniversary. Activities will include a booth where kids can feel the heat as concrete sets, and a concrete “petting zoo” where visitors can learn how to build boats out of concrete.

The American tradition of racing concrete canoes dates back to the 1960s, when some civil engineering students organized local competitions. The national paddle-offs began in 1988 when BASF Construction Chemicals signed on as a corporate sponsor. Now, civil engineering students across the country train for the annual competition. Regional paddle-offs whittle down the team to the 22 national contenders.

The UW team members have spent almost a year getting ready for race day. In July the team started paddling practice on Lake Washington, said Kris McArthur, a senior civil engineering student and co-captain of the team. In the fall quarter faculty advisor Donald Janssen, associate professor of civil engineering, taught Lightweight Cementitious Composites, a course in which students tested about 40 different concrete mixes to compare weight, strength and cracking.

“In some ways it’s just a fun project, but at the same time it has all the aspects of a real construction project,” Janssen said. “There’s a lot of management involved, a lot of planning, deadlines. It’s really good experience.”

The ASCE changes the rules slightly each time so students can’t reuse boats. Concrete canoes generally weigh between 150 and 350 pounds.

“Some people are kind of astonished that we make these boats,” said McArthur. “Nobody thinks concrete floats, but it does.”

Team adviser Peter Mackenzie, research assistant professor of civil engineering, used a computer program to model the body of the canoe and see where the stresses would occur, given the weight and position of each paddler. The students then added extra reinforcement to those points so that the boat wouldn’t crack.

“The contribution of our professors and our department has been very generous,” McArthur said. “I can’t emphasize enough how rewarding the project has been, and how fun now that the hard part is over. We’re very excited for nationals.”

Concrete canoeing alumni and members of the ASCE’s Seattle chapter volunteered to help organize the upcoming event, and local engineering firms will help foot the bill. National sponsors also contributed money for the teams’ travel and accommodation in Seattle. The program includes a career fair on Friday in Red Square, a welcome banquet Thursday evening at the Museum of Flight, and an award ceremony Saturday evening at Seattle Center. More than 360 competitors will be staying in McMahon Hall during the competition.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this,” said Kathy Davis, an organizer and former member of the team who is now pursuing her master’s in civil engineering. “Mostly, I just want everybody to have a good time and for everything to go smoothly.”

Davis predicts that the races will make for exciting viewing. “It’s kind of like NASCAR,” she said. “You’re waiting for someone to run into another team, or sink or something.”

This competition will be the first time rivals UW and WSU face off in a national concrete canoe race. In the regional championship the UW was in the lead, but high waves gradually filled the UW’s boat with water. The canoe sank less than 100 yards from the finish line and the UW paddlers swam it across the finish line to claim the silver medal.

“We’ve done training on rough water now so we’ll be stable,” McArthur said. “We all feel really strongly that we want to beat WSU, but we’re looking for a top-five finish,” he said. “We’re shooting to be a top team this year.”

The races will take place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 16 on Sunset Beach in Issaquah. The family carnival will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, see www.engr.washington.edu/news/canoe