All eyes will be on the University of Nevada, Reno concrete canoe team this week when they defend their national champion title beginning with the Mid-Pacific Conference regional qualifier in Sacramento. If they win the regional competition they will return to the National Concrete Canoe Competition in June at Clemson University.
"We absolutely feel the pressure of being national champions," materials engineering student and co-manager of the team Wes Munson said. "The top three or four teams in Mid-Pac are very competitive, both in the region and nationally."
There are 15 universities in the Mid-Pac region, including arch rivals University of California, Berkeley; U.C. Davis; and the newer contenders, Tongji University from China. Teams compete for the highest score through a composite of five canoe races, canoe aesthetics, a technical paper and an oral presentation.
The Mid-Pacific Conference is an annual event for civil engineering students to demonstrate leadership and technical knowledge. It is an American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) event comprised of the member ASCE student chapters in universities in Northern California and Northern Nevada.
The University's concrete canoe team started in 2005 with a fifth place at the regional competition. Since 2007, the team has placed first at regionals six out of seven years. The team has also been an annual contender at national competitions since 2006, finishing in first place in 2008 and 2014 and placing in the top five every year since 2007.
"We have to be first to advance to finals, it will be close," Munson said. "Our team has placed first in the regionals seven times in the past nine races."
The team and team faculty advisors have high hopes this year, coming off the national win. After reviewing this year's national competition rules, they decided to use last year's winning design, making innovative improvements they hope will propel them onto the top of the podium again this year.
"The team saved 400 hours of labor and $2500 in construction costs." Munson said. "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. We were looking for a superlight alternative. Last year's canoe was 160 pounds; this year's canoe is 138 pounds, our lightest one ever."
The new mix uses a couple of new ingredients. It is one of 50 recipes tried and tested by the mix committee - the most amount of mixes tested in one year. The mixture is more sustainable with 10 percent reduction in density and a 32-pound reduction in weight, with the idea of making the boat faster and more maneuverable than last year's boat, Alluvium.
"We used the same mold as last year, and the rules this year only had a few changes - increased buoyancy requirements and additional mix design requirements," mechanical engineering student and co-manager of the team Devin Larson said. "We decided this approach was in keeping with our theme of Aquatone, the name of this year's canoe."
Aquatone is named after the CIA Lockheed U-2 aircraft code-named "Project Aquatone" and based in a top secret location in Nevada in the 1950s. The U-2 used revolutionary design in aerodynamics and other aspects to reach higher altitudes and speed. The design was unmatched by traditional technology of the time.
"The ambition and technical complexity behind the U-2 inspired the canoe team to pursue unparalleled heights with Aquatone," the team wrote in their design paper that will be presented to the judges at the competition.
Aquatone, sporting a graphic design that pulls in elements of the U-2 project, is 21 feet 8 inches long with a narrow beam of just over 2 feet. Total drag forces on the hull is nearly three pounds less than last year. The construction includes a pre-stressed wire system of 18 steel tendons for strength, covered by a half-inch of concrete with an underlayment of a thin carbon fiber grid.
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.
Construction began in September at about the same time the team members who paddle the canoe began their training and practice regime.
There are nine paddlers, all engineering students, to race the various categories: men's endurance, women's endurance, men's sprint, women's sprint and coed sprint. They have trained all winter, every weekend at the Sparks Marina Lake.
In their new boat Aquatone, the team will begin their quest to defend their national champion title earned last year beating out 22 teams representing conferences from around the country with about 350 universities nationwide (and some from Canada and Mexico).
More than a dozen team members leave Thursday morning for the event. The canoe races will be held Friday at Lake Natoma in Folsom, Calif., and the other components of the competition will be Saturday at U.C. Davis, host of the competition. Canoe display is Friday at 8 a.m., the dunk test to show buoyancy of the boat is from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and the races are at noon.
The annual ASCE National Concrete Canoe Competition's goal is to give civil engineering students hands-on experience working with concrete - one of the world's most common building materials - and to increase public awareness about civil engineering as a dynamic and innovative field. As a part of the Mid-Pac conference, two other University teams will compete in other events, the Steel Bridge Competition and the Water Treatment Competition. One team will build to specifications a scale-model of a steel bridge and the other team will design and build a water filtration system using a limited number of everyday materials.
"When our students get involved in engineering student groups like this, it is a great way for them to build student relationships, to learn more about their profession through tours and speakers, and to give to their community through service projects," David Sanders, civil and environmental engineering Foundation Professor and the team's faculty adviser, said. "The Mid-Pac competition provides a fantastic and fun way for students to apply their problem solving and technical skills, to improve their time and team management skills and to meet fellow students from other schools.
"Besides having worked extremely hard in preparing for the competition, the competition itself is a blast. The students always represent the University well. I am extremely proud of them."