A mix of excitement with a pinch of nervousness surrounds the University's concrete canoe team as they head to Clemson University in South Carolina to defend their national title won last year at the National Concrete Canoe Competition. The College of Engineering students will caravan to South Carolina with their 25-foot-trailer carrying the canoe in its specially designed cradle, arriving in time for the competition June 20-22.
"We've got a lot to think about, a tradition to uphold, winning last year and how will we do this year," engineering student Wes Munson, co-manager of the team, said.
"It would be great to be the team that makes it two first-place national wins in a row," Devin Larson, the other co-manager, said. "We are feeling pressure to repeat last year's performance, but we're very well prepared, and all the teams are very competitive, so it will be a great event."
This year marks the 10th year in a row the University of Nevada, Reno has qualified to compete in the national event put on by the American Society of Civil Engineers for 28 years. After a sixth place finish in their first national competition in 2006, the team has placed in the top-five eight times, with two first-place wins and two second-place finishes.
The team has the most top five finishes than any other team in the country, but the competition is tough, with several teams having placed first from three to five times, including their arch rival U.C. Berkeley which has earned five first-place finishes at nationals.
"Our consistent wins exemplify the quality and determination of the students in our civil engineering program," engineering Professor David Sanders, the team's faculty advisor, said. "Year after year the students dedicate a huge amount of time outside their studies to design, build and race the canoe, as well as prepare a technical design paper and oral presentation. It's an incredible amount of work, and it shows in their successes."
A concerted effort, this year orchestrated by Larson and Munson, the team writes a 20-page design paper, prepares and presents an oral presentation and build a display that showcases the canoe and the process of building it.
Each year the team evaluates their performance from the preceding year, seeing where they can improve and what resources they need. This year, the team realized they had a winning design for the hull of the canoe, so they kept the design and concentrated on making the canoe lighter and stronger.
"Not having to design a new canoe, it gave us time to focus on different aspects, such as the concrete mix and lightening the boat," Munson said. "We were looking for a superlight alternative. This year's canoe is our lightest one ever."
"We tested 50 concrete mixes, with a number of aggregates," Larson said. "We found a much lighter product and after many tests and experiments, we think we found the right one. It's much lighter than last year's canoe, and it's nice to see it worked so well in the regional competition."
This year the canoe, Aquatone, weighs just 138 pounds, compared to last year's Alluvium, at 160 pounds.
"It's not just weight, but how the hull slips through the water, how the paddlers weight is distributed throughout the canoe, the graphic design, a number of factors in the competition, not just how fast it can go, but how well it's designed and built and the aesthetics, that makes it a winning entry," Sanders said.
Aquatone is 21 feet 8 inches long with a narrow beam of just over 2 feet. Total drag forces on the hull are nearly three pounds less than last year.
The construction process began in September at about the same time the team members who paddle the canoe began their training and practice regime.
While team members are stirring and testing concrete mixes, other team members cover the canoe mold with a thin carbon fiber mesh and fasten 18 tiny steel cables around the plastic mold for strength. They then sculpt the concrete over the mesh and cables, meticulously applying the mixture to a thickness of one-half inch.
Once applied, the concrete is allowed to dry and cure very slowly, for 28 days, and then the time consuming task of dry sanding begins.
The team logged 40 days, including a few all-nighters, of meticulous sanding of the hull to work out the imperfections from the concrete pour and to make the surface as smooth as possible before applying the graphics and two coats of sealer. The team spends about 3,600 cumulative hours on the several aspects of the competition.
Guiding the various functions of the project are Safety Manager Jon Head, Academics Manager Kristin Kramer, Mix Design Manger Osvaldo Arias, Construction Manager Peter Margaretich and Aesthetics Manager Tanya Flint. As paddling coach, John Lau keeps the paddlers on a rigorous training schedule.
The nine paddlers, all engineering students, trained all winter, every weekend at the Sparks Marina Lake. The race categories are men's endurance, women's endurance, men's sprint, women's sprint and coed sprint.
To make it to nationals, the team won each of the five races in the Mid-Pac Conference regional competition held in the Sacramento area in April. The Mid-Pac is one of 18 conferences around the country - as many as 24 teams can qualify from the more than 200 teams nationwide participating in qualifying conferences.
In the final product category, which includes aesthetics, workmanship and a display, the Reno team placed second behind Berkeley at the regionals. They placed second in the oral presentation and took first in the design paper category. "We've polished our oral presentation a bit," Munson said. "It's an area where we always have to work extra hard."
The hard work from all 21 team members, under guidance from Sanders and especially Kelly Doyle, the team's practitioner advisor who keeps the team on an even keel, is noticed and appreciated by University officials, fans and community supporters of the team.
"This all wouldn't be possible without the continued support of the College of Engineering and the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, alumni and our Nevada engineering industry," Sanders said. "The support provides a wonderful way for students to apply their problem solving and technical skills, and team management skills, which will help them all be successful in their careers."