Concrete canoe? Is this a joke? Concrete doesn’t float.
Yes it does, and it doesn’t just float because it’s in the shape of a canoe. Engineering students here at Marquette University and 13 other schools in the Midwest build canoes out of special concrete and race them as part of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Great Lakes Conference, an annual civil engineering student competition.
The concrete canoe team consists of about 20 civil engineering students who work throughout the school year in order to complete a canoe to enter in the competition. The team members are all part of the ASCE. ASCE oversees the competition by providing guidelines, some funding and the final judging. The competition rotates between host schools each year; this year Notre Dame was the host.
Work began long before the team was cruising through the water in their green canoe.
As early as September the team was already preparing for the April competition. The team started with the basics. They had to build a stand to hold the mold for the canoe, the mold which is made out of large Styrofoam blocks and a plastic tent to control the humidity when putting the concrete into the mold.
While the majority of the team went to work building these necessary pieces, Steven Graziano, a senior civil engineering student, began designing the concrete mix. White portland cement, fly ash, slag and silica fumes make up the cement portion of the mixture. The aggregate of the canoe is mostly composed of glass beads and recycled concrete. The mix also contained water and shreds of fiberglass as reinforcement as well as chemical admixtures, powders and fluids that help control the workability of the concrete.
“It’s one of the most exotic mixes I’ve ever seen,” said David Newman, laboratory manager for civil and environmental engineering and technical advisor to the team. “That’s just not done; you don’t make buildings or roads out of that stuff. That’s strictly for this and there aren’t really any guidelines written on how to design that.”
The only guideline for the mix was that it had to contain at least 25 percent recycled materials. This year’s team decided to adopt the motto “It’s not easy being green,” and used 100 percent recycled materials for their mix. The rest of the mix was open-ended and was devised with technical ability and creativity.
“The technical ability that students leave here with is essentially a given,” said Dr. James Crovetti, ASCE faculty advisor for the team. “It’s really what can they do to work with other people and get outside their box of comfort, and to be able to look at a problem from different perspectives, then find a solution and not get frustrated by the challenges in front of them.”
While Graziano did most of the technical heavy lifting, he did not do it alone. “There were a lot of times where I would go to Dave and we’d run into some sort of road block and together… we would put our heads together and figure out something.”
In the beginning of February, the team poured the canoe. While Graziano and a group of students finished measuring all of the components of the mix in the lab, project manager Patrick Carruthers a senior civil engineering student and another group of students were waiting in a room in the basement of Cramer Hall with the mold. The first bucket of concrete made its way over and the team started putting concrete in the mold inside the hot steamy plastic tent while the smell of concrete and sweat filled the air.
The tent kept the level of humidity high, which gave the team more working time with the concrete. Hours and a few buckets of concrete later the canoe sat in the mold, complete with fiberglass reinforcement between two layers of concrete. But it was nowhere near finished.
The canoe still needed to cure for several weeks, before the next steps could take place, which included water-grinding the inside and outside of the canoe to make it smooth as well as sealing it to keep it from absorbing more water.
After four weeks, disaster struck. When the team attempted to remove the canoe from the mold, it cracked in half. The canoe had bonded to the mold and was not able to shrink while it cured. The reinforcement also had ripped.
“It was like getting punched in the stomach,” said Graziano. With the competition less than four weeks away, the team had suffered a big blow but remained committed.
“We were going with or without something,” said Patricia Fleming, a junior civil engineering student and ASCE Marquette Chapter president.
The team knew what they had to do. “We sat there, talked about how it sucked, and then we were like: What do we have to do to get a new one?” said Carruthers. Fortunately, a few dedicated members: Adrianna Stanley, a senior civil engineering student, Ryan Chapman, a junior civil engineering student and Graziano were able to repair and put the mold back together over spring break so the team could pour a new canoe when everyone returned.
“All-in-all, it was something that needed to be done and we accepted that,” said Chapman.
With less than two weeks until the competition the team poured their second canoe, giving them only a week for it to cure and a few days to finish the water grinding and sealing. Four days before heading to Notre Dame the canoe slipped right out of the mold without cracking. This time the team had switched reinforcements as well as lined the mold with plastic wrap to prevent any bonding issues.
With the final coat of sealer still drying, the team loaded the canoe into a trailer on a Thursday afternoon and departed for Notre Dame. Every bump the trailer went over on the three and a half hour drive could have caused the canoe to crack, but it made it in one piece.
Early next morning the team headed to St. Mary’s Lake on the Notre Dame campus. The sun wasn’t quite up yet; it was cold and clouds were looming overhead. The team unloaded the canoe and placed it on its stand while the other teams started to trickle in and do the same.
With temperatures in the mid-30s and gusts of wind blowing across the lake, the team carried the canoe into the water for the first time. It floated.
The team started filling the canoe with water as part of their first test. The first test is the swamp test, where the canoe must be fully submerged and then float to the surface. The team took their hands off the canoe and it started to float. The team cheered, emptied the water out of the canoe, hauled it out and tried to stay warm until their first race.
After all the teams had gone through the swamp test and had their canoes judged for specifications, the races began. The first race was the women’s slalom/endurance race. In this time-trial race the participants had to weave through a set of buoys and then paddle around a far buoy and cross the finish line. The Marquette team helped Fleming, Stanley and Kaleianuene Akaka, a senior civil engineering student into the canoe. The team was excited to see the canoe move on the water for the first time. Ready and in position, the girls raised their paddles and were through the finish line in five minutes and eight seconds placing fourth. At the end of the day, the Marquette team took seventh overall in the races. However, the competition did not end there. The races were worth only a small portion in the overall canoe competition, which included a design report, a presentation as well as the canoe itself.
The conference also includes other competitions such as manila folder bridge, concrete golf, wastewater treatment, a mystery competition, technical paper report and a steel bridge competition.
On Saturday morning and afternoon, the team participated in manila folder bridge as well the wastewater treatment, technical paper and mystery competitions. Carruthers and Graziano also gave their presentation on the canoe. The judges were impressed with the fact that the team was able to use 100 percent recycled materials as well the fact that they were able to come together as a team to construct a new canoe in such a short amount of time.
Saturday was the final banquet when all the teams gathered for dinner. As the final results and awards were announced, everyone on the team was taken by surprise. The Marquette team had placed third in the concrete canoe competition, less than 5 points away from University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has dominated the competition in the past, and often competes in nationals.
“It was an insane feeling. Being there at the banquet and hearing our name called for third place, all of us were in shock,” said Fleming. The team took fourth overall as well as first in concrete golf and second for Stanley’s technical paper.