By Noah Johnson
For Unwind magazine
Wood, aluminum, plastic and fiberglass: all are materials one might expect a canoe to be made out of. But concrete? Never. That is, unless you were to speak to a member of the University of Maryland’s concrete canoe team.
The National Concrete Canoe Competition is a contest hosted by the American Society of Engineers in which teams from universities across the United States build, display and race canoes made of concrete. While teams spend nearly the entire academic year creating their vessels, the competition itself is broken into four phases: display, design paper, presentation and racing, said Brian Gausman, a senior civil engineering major.
The university will host this year’s mid-atlantic regional competition from April 7-9, with the canoe presentations taking place on campus and races occurring at Centennial Lake in Howard County, Gausman said. The 2017 national competition will take place from June 17-19 at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.
“It’s a pretty big time commitment,” said Gausman, who is also one of the university’s project managers. “It adjusts depending on what phase we’re in.”
Maryland’s team began preparing for this spring’s competition in the fall by designing its canoe and creating a suitable concrete mix, Gausman said. Wing-Mei Ko, a junior civil and environmental engineering major, is the head mix officer and is responsible for designing and testing concrete mixes.
“Throughout the fall semester, we have mix days, which are concrete mix sessions where volunteers can come learn about concrete by helping us mix batches for testing,” Ko said.
The team’s post-winter break schedule is far more rigorous, with members working at least 10 hours per week, Gausman said. Balancing the project with school work is generally the most difficult part of the experience, said Vasilios Plangetis, a junior civil engineering major on the team. Tasks in the spring phase include pouring the concrete, taking the canoe out of its mold, adding aesthetics and setting up a display stand.
“The most challenging part of the project is the learning curve,” Ko said. “The world of concrete is so vast and there is so much to this material that one can never know all there is to know about concrete.”
In order to qualify for the competition, there are guidelines regarding concrete composition that every team must abide by, Gausman said. He added that a set of new rules included this year have made the construction process even more challenging, especially because teams cannot compete if their canoe fails a flotation test.
“The goal is to make it less dense than water so the concrete actually floats,” Gausman said.
Construction is not the only aspect of the competition that requires creativity, as each
team names their vessel based on a selected theme. For example, the name of the university’s canoein 2016 was Whiskey River, after a 1920s speakeasy, Gausman said.
“The theme this year is ‘murder mystery,’ so we are playing with names that relate to mystery books and games such as Clue,” Gausman said.
While there is fun competition within the teams during the design and construction phases, regionals and nationals are very serious, said Gausman, who described the attitude of competitors as “high-strung.” Maryland’s team has thrived under these conditions over the past two years, winning the mid-atlantic regional in 2015 and 2016, Ko said.
“Each year, the team strives to perform better at the competition with the goal of becoming one of the top competitors at the national competition,” she said.