Persistent Paddlers

Nevada’s concrete canoe team once again placed in the top three at the national competition.

6/28/2010 | By: Mike Wolterbeek  |

University engineering students paddled hard against the wind, choppy waters and 21 other teams to excel again in the highly competitive national concrete canoe competition, but it was more brains than brawn that earned them the second place overall spot in the event at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Cal Poly took first place in the grueling three-day event that mixes academics and athletics, and the 25-member Nevada team placed ahead of École de technologie supérieure (ETS) from Montréal in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 23rd Annual National Concrete Canoe Competition (NCCC) that ended June 19.

“Congratulations to all the team members,” Manos Maragakis, dean of the College of Engineering, said upon hearing the news of the team’s strong showing. “All of us in the College of Engineering are proud of their effort, dedication and sustained success in this tough and prestigious competition.”

And it’s not just paddling a canoe, the competition has four components for scoring. This year, the Wolf Pack team placed first in the technical design paper, second in the oral presentation and fifth place in the final product category. The students, paddling their 224-pound canoe “Battle Born” in several races, placed fourth overall in the racing events.

“At our first meeting in August, with a young team and new design challenges, we had to decide if this year would be for fun and learning or to be competitive,” project manager and civil engineering student Kim Rafter  said. “We set our goal to be in the top three at nationals so I’m thrilled with our finish. The team did great.”

The four components of the canoe competition contribute 25 percent each to the team’s final score: students write a paper detailing the design and construction of their canoe; give an oral presentation on their year-long effort; the final product, including the canoe and an accompanying display that further explains their design process; and a series of five race events – men’s and women’s slalom/endurance races and men’s, women’s and co-ed sprint races.

“We focused equally on all parts of the competition,” Rafter said. “The construction was the most difficult just because it takes so many hours, and we had a tough time finding some new materials required in the concrete mixture. It meant a heavier boat and tougher paddling.”

Cal Poly’s canoe weighed 55 pounds less than “Battle Born” at just 170 pounds, and ETS’s canoe weighed just 180 pounds.

“We’ll definitely try for a lighter boat next year. I know we can do it because last year our boat weighed just 140 pounds,” Rafter said. “An additional requirement this year was to include two recycled aggregates in the concrete mix, which was a challenge, and what we found weighed more than we had planned.”

Following rigorous design and construction standards laid out in a 78-page document of the ASCE’s rules and regulations, the Nevada team used a creative mixture of cement, recycled aggregate, fibers and other exotic materials to build the white, amber and blue lighter-than-water canoe. It took more than eight months from design to final product.

“From a short distance away, it would be impossible to see that the canoe was made from concrete,” David Sanders, faculty advisor, said. “It’s amazing how hard the students work. We, and they, have much to be proud of in their success.”

Under the direction of construction manager and third year canoe team member David Jayme, the majority of the team’s 3,000 hours logged in the project were spent on construction – in a corner of the cavernous lower level of engineering’s large-structures lab. The hull of the canoe is just a half-inch thick, with carbon fiber mesh and pre-tensioned cables holding it together. The students form the mold for the hull out of high density foam and the reinforcement is tied to the form prior to casting. The thick concrete slurry is mixed in small batches by hand, and then painstakingly applied with trowels and bare hands over the mesh, like frosting on a cake.

“David did a great job of keeping the team motivated, it’s tough for full-time students who work to come in and work long hours on the boat,” Rafter said. “But it’s worth it. It’s just for fun, not for class credit – this project is way worth a 3-credit class. With this project you learn as much or more than you do in class.”

The mix-design team was led by Tiffany Reichert. Jake Snyder and Jeremy Hasselbauer led the presentation team and Jeff Weagel was the paddling team coach for the second year in a row.

Adhering to a tough training tradition enforced by coach Weagel, the paddlers trained every weekend throughout the winter, except for extremely stormy days, at Sparks Marina in preparation for the event. In April they won the highly competitive regional competition in Chico, Calif., one of 18 around the country and Canada, to gain them a berth at the nationals.

“We’re extremely proud of our performance, we now have the highest average overall placement of any team in the history of the NCCC,” Kelly Lyttle, practitioner advisor to the team said following their fifth consecutive year of national competition. “It’s an honor to represent our school, our state and our profession.” Nevada won the national competition in 2008, placed fifth in 2009, third in 2007 and sixth in 2006.

Sanders, faculty advisor since 1990, said a tremendous amount of credit for the success of this year’s team goes to project manager Kim Rafter and other team leaders. In addition, alumni, such as Kelly Lyttle and Michael Taylor, provided tremendous encouragement and assistance. Lyttle, the team’s practitioner advisor, works for the University’s Center for Civil Engineering Earthquake Research and Michael Taylor works for the Nevada Department of Transportation.

“Both of them have been key members since the student chapter started this amazing run,” Sanders said.

The team's National Concrete Canoe Competition past performance includes:

  • First Place Overall (2008)
  • Most Design Points (2008)
  • Most Race Points (2009)
  • First Place Design Paper (2008, 2010)
  • First Place Oral Presentation (2006)
  • First Place Product (2007)

The concrete canoe competition provides students with a practical application of the engineering principles they learn in the classroom, along with important team and project management skills they will need in their careers. The event challenges the students' knowledge, creativity and stamina, while showcasing the versatility and durability of concrete as a building material.

The team members are undergraduates in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, which sponsors the project, and the Mechanical Engineering Department. All must be members of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)/Associated General Contractors (AGC) Student Chapter to participate.


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