Pigs don’t fly, concrete doesn’t float, and miracles don’t happen—only one of these statements remained true when engineering schools from across North America gathered last June in Montreal for the 2008 American Society of Civil Engineers National Concrete Canoe Competition (NCCC).
The Canadian team, from the Université du Québec’s École de technologie supérieure (ETS), pulled off a miracle at the annual event: besting a number of prestigious American engineering schools, including the defending champion, the University of Wisconsin Badgers, and winning a place on the podium—despite sustaining potentially fatal cracks in their boat.
Engineering has always been the ultimate hands-on, learning-by-doing university discipline. And one of the ways that engineering students learn is by joining various clubs and competitions—in pursuit of often quixotic feats. For example, Canadian engineering schools have regularly fielded teams in the North American Solar Challenge, where last year students from the University of Waterloo finished fourth. Waterloo also holds a Guinness world record for the longest distance travelled by a solar car. Last summer, teams of Canadian mechanical and software engineering students from ETS, the University of Victoria, the University of Ottawa and the University of Alberta travelled to the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center to compete in the International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition and the International Autonomous Surface Vehicle Student Competition. In 2006, the University of Manitoba won a similar U.S. competition for the best unmanned aircraft. University of Saskatchewan students have twice won NASA’s space elevator competition. A big part of a Canadian engineer’s education takes place beyond the academic transcript and outside the classroom.
In concrete canoe racing, the NCCC is the equivalent of the World Series. It brings together the winners of 18 regional races to compete for continent-wide bragging rights. The engineers from ETS earned their berth by besting eight other schools—Dalhousie University, École Polytechnique de Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke, Université de Moncton, Queen’s University, Université Laval, the University of Toronto and St. Clair College—at the Canadian championships. Quebec engineers have a long tradition of success in concrete canoe; Laval was the Canadian champion from 2001 to 2004.
A concrete canoe may not sound as sexy as a solar car or an elevator to outer space, but building one, and building it right, is an important test. The difficult part appears to be getting concrete to float. Turns out, that’s the easy part. But getting a thin-skinned vessel to hold together is the real challenge—as the ETS team discovered on race day.
Canoes are normally made of wood or aluminum because, explains U of T engineering professor Michael Collins, these materials are good at absorbing tension and compression. They bend. “Concrete doesn’t buckle,” says Collins. It can’t handle tension. “Students have to create the canoe with the right reinforcement materials to overcome this.” That challenge explains why concrete canoe racing is practised around the world, with major meets in Europe, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan.
“It all starts in the spring, as soon as we retire last year’s canoe,” says Jonathan Remillard, 23, a third-year civil engineering student and co-captain of the ETS team. “Something that really helped us this year was our tests with last year’s canoe,” he says. “We glued deformation gauges on it to compare both experimental and theoretical results.”
To the layperson, concrete is concrete is concrete. Wrong. At the NCCC, teams must use a particular concrete mixture, and to make things more challenging, that recipe changes every year. For 2008, the rules called for the concrete to contain at least 60 per cent of a common ingredient known as C150 Portland cement, with the remainder of the mix made up of cementitious material. Cementitious material is anything that, when mixed with matter, will harden into a rigid mass. Within these guidelines, teams must create a vessel that is relatively lightweight—the lightest canoe in the championships weighed only 156 lb.—yet strong enough to support up to four paddlers. Knowing the position and weight of the paddlers is critical to designing the canoe. If a paddler moves out of position, the tension points in the canoe change, and brittle concrete can crack.
“To select the final shape, we submitted scaled prototypes to a pool test, to see which one was offering the least resistance in the water,” said Remillard. The design chosen, ETS created a mould consisting of polyurethane sections covered with a drywall compound. In its concrete, ETS used a mixture of white cement, slag cement and silica fumes. “Cementitious materials are heavy,” said Remillard. “We need very light aggregates if we want to compensate for the weight.” The solution? “Most aggregates in our concrete are recycled glass beads, but we also use cenospheres and glass microspheres.” Those last two are lighter than water, and so small that they appear to the naked eye to be powder.
Building the canoe is a painstaking exercise that takes weeks. And when they’re done, the team has to detail every step of the process in a 200-page design paper. (And they’re not allowed to get an “artsie” to write it up for them.) The judges will carefully review their work.
Despite all the time put into the canoe, students are expected to maintain full course loads. Do their grades suffer? “Students who are enrolled in these clubs tend to perform better [academically] than other students,” says Yves Beauchamp, the director of ETS. He believes that’s partly due to the time management skills learned on the team.
“It’s a complete academic experience because they start with a material that most people think of as something that if you put it in water, it would sink,” says D. Wayne Klotz, president-elect of ASCE and owner of an engineering firm in Houston, Texas. “It’s a microcosm of the engineering discipline: I conceived something, I designed it, and I made it work.”
The NCCC competition was spread over three days in June. Thursday marked the beginning of the competition. Teams carried their canoes into downtown Montreal’s Place du Canada and set up displays to impress both the public and judges. The Milwaukee School of Engineering’s yellow canoe, “The Wedge,” was showcased by students wearing cheeseheads. The United States Air Force Academy’s display was a cockpit. ETS built its presentation around a fake fireplace.
The second day of the competition was devoted to oral presentations. Each team gave a presentation and was peppered with questions from the judges.
The final day of the competition featured the highlight of the NCCC: the races. The women started things off at 8 a.m., with a timed endurance race over a 600-m course. On shore, each men’s team worked to lose their voices showing support. Wisconsin’s Badgers, the defending champions, took the women’s race, but ETS pulled off a surprise first place in the men’s race.
It’s not uncommon for concrete canoes to develop small cracks and take on water. Many teams brought Shop-Vacs, which came in handy as several boats returned to shore filled with water. Cracks are usually minor and do not pose a threat to the vessels—but after the first round of the next event, the 200-m race, the ETS team discovered something far more serious. Two large cracks had opened up in the centre of the canoe. The boat didn’t look seaworthy anymore.
The options? The team could resort to duct taping the canoe together. No engineer wants to do that. It goes against the whole point of the concrete canoe, and in any case the judges would assess a penalty, sinking any chance of a high finish in the competition. But if the crack wasn’t fixed, ETS chances would be similarly sunk.
Team captain Remillard rallied his team. Students from other schools offered advice and a judge even joined in. Was there a way to race the canoe again? After much discussion among the dozens of people on the dock, a potential solution was found: crowd the paddlers into the centre of the canoe. The pressure of this positioning might seal the cracks and hold the canoe together. The forces that had torn the canoe apart could be redirected to hold it together. “If you put everyone in the middle it makes the ends of the boat push up,” explained one judge, “which will close the gap from the crack.”
After lunch, it was time for ETS to give it a shot. For fans, it was a bit like a NASCAR race: binoculars at the ready, they waited to see if disaster would strike. The ETS paddlers delicately boarded their canoe, grouping themselves tightly in the centre. As they pushed off from the dock and moved gingerly toward the starting line, everyone was silent. A rescue boat positioned itself nearby, in case the canoe split.
After 30 seconds, it became clear that the plan was working: the ETS boat was not sinking. With that a cheer went up from across the race course and even the paddlers were seen to smile. As the ETS team gingerly moved their canoe through the water, the other teams in the heat sped through the course. Slow and steady earned last place in this race, but it ensured survival. ETS had at least finished the competition.
Looking at their wounded boat after the race, the ETS team said that they believed the crack was caused by a combination of “fatigue and stress,” though they couldn’t be sure until they ran tests. “We’re going to check everything,” said Remillard.
None of the teams knew their overall scores at this point. The races are worth only 25 points out of the 100 points possible in the competition. The judges don’t reveal the points awarded prior to the races and the canoes themselves are judged both before and after the races. The ETS team knew they had lost points on the water. ETS won the men’s endurance race, the one before the cracks appeared, but the other four race categories were all won by Wisconsin. At this point, it looked like the Badgers would win their sixth championship in a row. As for ETS, they were hoping to at least make the top 10, but after the mishap, even that seemed out of reach. They had finished last in three out of five races. Assuming the worst, Remillard told a reporter, “at least we won the nationals and made it this far.”
Luckily for ETS, this is truly an engineering competition, where race results are only part of the scoring. Overall results were announced that night at a special banquet. In the category of canoe design, the ETS team shocked themselves and everyone else by claiming first place—even with points deducted for durability. Those thousand-plus hours of work by team members had paid off. The University of Nevada-Reno came in second and Berkeley’s canoe, with a design honouring the university’s tradition as a centre of student protest, took third place. The defending champions from Wisconsin found themselves in sixth place in the category. For its design paper, ETS placed sixth. But ETS again surprised itself and the field by being awarded first place for its oral presentation, with Berkeley and Reno placing second and third. The oral presentation win was an amazing upset, considering that ETS students were presenting and answering questions in English, their second language.
The final result: Nevada-Reno was the new champion. Berkeley took second. And ETS stunned everyone, most of all themselves, by winning third place—the second-highest finish ever by a Canadian engineering school at the World Series of concrete canoe.
ETS will be back for next year’s NCCC competition, to be held in Alabama. As the host school in 2008, ETS was guaranteed a bye into this year’s championships. But having also qualified for the race by winning their conference, they will be allowed to carry forward that berth until next year.
Concrete canoe racing is not a sport likely to catch on beyond its rabid fan base of engineering students. But for those who follow the sport, 2009 could be a year that a Canadian team finally takes top spot on the podium. “[ETS] are getting better each year,” says François Paradis, editor-in-chief of Concrete Canoe Magazine. (Yes, there really is a magazine devoted to the sport.) Paradis says teams rise and fall based upon transfer of knowledge and accumulation of experience, and he believes that ETS has what it takes to come back even stronger in 2009. He should know: he was a member of the Laval team that brought home the best showing ever by a Canadian team, taking second place in 2004.
Our Exclusive Concrete Canoe Photo Gallery.
(click on any of the pictures to activate our full-sized slide show)
A member of the University of Washington team makes a last-second touch-up to their canoe Life.
A look at the craftsmanship of the ETS canoe.
The ETS team poses for a group photo.
This Southern Illinois University student choose an unique flotation device.
At 210lbs, it takes the entire Michigan Technological University team to carry their canoe Gambler
The canoes in action.
The crack that nearly ended the competition for ETS.
A look at the ETS canoe as the team examines the crack.
The distress of the ETS team is clear as they realize their predicament.
The ETS glides their canoe as they sit tightly in the centre in an attempt to hold their canoe together.
The ETS team celebrates survival.
Most of the teams came equipped with Shop-Vacs to drain their canoes at the end of the day.
Other teams preferred using old-fashioned methods of water removal.
Some people just enjoyed the ride.