In the world of quirky contests, the U.S. National Concrete Canoe Competition isn’t as far-out as, say, the Extreme Ironing World Championships or as appalling as the World Bog Snorkeling Championships, but it has its own ability to astound the public and lure fanatical participants.
Its antithetical challenge: build a canoe from concrete; race it repeatedly on a lake; and impress a panel of judges with a technical paper, tradeshow-style display and MBA-caliber PowerPoint presentation. As devoted undertakings go, it is a little silly and a lot serious, especially here at Berkeley Engineering, where a team of 25 civil engineers won the national championship this summer, their first since 1992.
Cal’s canoe, “Bear Area,” is a 230-pound beauty with tattoos, decorative graphics made of colored concrete slip that depict familiar sights like Memorial Stadium and the San Francisco skyline. The canoe, having defeated 21 others during its championship run at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in June, now rests in its trailer at Richmond Field Station. Its smooth surface and simple shape belie a technical wonder.
Civil and environmental engineering senior Danielle Des Champs is team captain or, in concrete canoe parlance, project manager (PM). Des Champs contended with the usual PM responsibilities: creating timelines, lining up corporate sponsors to cover the team’s $27,000 budget and strong-arming peers to meet commitments. She also fielded the unexpected; for example, when the team suddenly lost its aquatic practice space months before the competition, she had to negotiate a new agreement.
Des Champs first got involved as a freshman paddler, practicing on the little gray lake at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park. While she and other paddlers learned to maneuver retired canoes, they inevitably wondered: How on earth do you build this thing, and can I make it better? Many Berkeley canoers start out as paddlers and join other divisions: structural design and analysis, concrete and materials, construction and graphics design.
If you throw a normal chunk of concrete—typically Portland cement, which includes aggregates such as sand or gravel and water—into a lake, it will sink. To get a 200-pound concrete boat to float, builders use a specialty aggregate containing microscopic air bubbles.
Bear Area’s engineers selected K1 glass microspheres and recycled glass beads ranging from 0.25 to 4.0 millimeters in diameter. They mixed them with white Portland cement, fly ash, two grades of vitreous calcium alumino-silicate (VCAS), latex (to add air and workability), a high range water reducer (the more water concrete retains the weaker it is) and a retarder (to delay setting time). They pressed thin layers of the mixture into a mold, reinforcing each layer with carbon fiber scrim and dry cured the canoe for seven days.
Aesthetics are another highly competitive subset of the competition; rules prohibit painting a canoe but allow colored stains and concrete slip. Under the leadership of Dan Gee (B.S.’09 CEE), now a civil engineering graduate student, the 2007–08 team developed a special method of both designing the canoe’s graphics and applying them using stencils and colored concrete mixes. Improving the technique this year, canoers mixed 10 decorative concrete colors and applied four layers of stenciling to create intricate murals. To recreate a watery bay at the bottom of the canoe, they applied various dilutions of an acid stain.
Bear Area team members clocked a total of 6,400 work hours this year, one thousand more than last year’s team, and Des Champs often worked 40-hour weeks. For their efforts, the team won a championship trophy and a $5,000 first-place scholarship. At the Cal vs. Oregon State football game on November 7, this year’s team members will be honored at Memorial Stadium for their achievement.
To an outsider, concrete canoe might look like a whimsical undergraduate pursuit with no real-world application, but it is serious training for Berkeley’s civil engineers. “We put to work what we learn in the classroom,” explains Justin Beutel, a CEE junior and the 2009–10 project manager. “We have to solve real problems, and they’re not just engineering problems. It’s dealing with people and working on a team.”
Danny Yost (B.S.’06 CEE), the 2003–04 project manager, worked as a Bay Area transportation engineer and planner right out of school and credits the concrete canoe competition with giving him real world skills. “I learned how to do graduate-level analyses in Excel, how to speak in front of audiences and how to give guidance to a group,” he says. “It was a great influence on my life.”
Are you a concrete canoe team member or alum? Share your memories, and we’ll post them with this story. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.