Civil Engineering Students Craft a Concrete Canoe

March 16, 2017

It may seem impractical to make a canoe from concrete, but the challenge was just part of the fun for a group of UMD civil engineering students

The team just returned from Iowa City, Iowa where they took third place in the 2014 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Concrete Canoe Competition.

All of their paddling in the pool must have helped, because UMD took first place in the racing events. The 12,000-plus hours they spent on the project since September was worth it. They also took second place in the overall product catagory and they were named the most spirited team.

Composed of 14 core members and over 20 in supporting roles, this is the second year that this team has participated in the Midwest competition.

Heidi Olson, who is in the final semester of her civil engineering major, and Pete Demshar, who is in his first semester as a civil engineering graduate student, were both part of the UMD team's inaugural year. “Last year we didn’t get started on our canoe until spring semester, but this year we began right away in the fall,” Olson said. “The main thing that we learned during our first competition was what we needed to do in our second year.”

Building for Success
The group began their work last September by experimenting with 63 different mixes of concrete, eventually developing a concrete mix that was lighter than water. The mixes were stirred together in five gallon buckets, and then poured into three cylinders and tested for compression and strength. The density was known because it is a mathematical calculation, but it isn’t possible to calculate a qualitative value like strength. A large part of the group’s testing involved trying to balance lightness and sturdiness, to ensure that the canoe would both float and hold together. The boat had to stay intact during transport to the competition, as well as in the vigorous races.

The club made a banana shaped mold, cast multiple layers of concrete and mesh, and then waited for it to cure. They made the inside smooth using sandpaper and drywall mix and added 10 layers of concrete to the outside. To finish it, they used 10 thin layers of concrete and two layers of a waterproof coating sealant.

students smoothing a canoe

The canoe had to be sanded smooth inside and out.

Sink or Swim
Once they built the canoe, the team’s work was far from over. Teams are judged in four different categories, and only a quarter of their total ‘grade’ is the race. Other, equally relevant categories are aesthetics of the canoe, an informational display, a PowerPoint presentation, and a written report. 

The event took place over the course of one day, starting with a presentation, followed by set up and then aesthetics, and races. There were five races in total, a men's sprint, a women's sprint, a men's endurance race and a women's endurance race, and finally a coed sprint.

The first place winner of the Iowa competition will be taking their boat to the national competition in June at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pa.

The UMD team brainstormed a unique appearance for their vessel. Each team is required to create a distinct theme, so the group dyed their concrete mix so that the canoe is red and black, resembling an iron ore freighter. They named it after the Duluth shipping industry and canoe oars; the name of the boat is "The Iron Oar." They decided upon an ‘OAR’ boat last fall while trying to come up with an idea that paid tribute to Duluth.

Olson said her favorite part of the preparation was paddling practice. In the fall the team canoed in Bagley pond, and all winter, right up until competition, they canoed in the UMD swimming pool. The team wasn't able to practice outside this spring because of the high volume of ice on the lakes.

Demshar enjoyed the talent of the new students who joined UMD's bid in the competition. "It's been a good core group," Demshar said. There’s leadership, management, and teamwork. "They'll do well next year, because there’s a lot to build on."

The project has received much support from campus and the community. Sponsors of the projects are Cliffs, Arrowhead Concrete, Brock White, T+N Auto, Kreck and Ojard Engineers, MSA Professional Services, and UMD Student Association.