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Building a fiberglass mold
Concrete canoe team members (from left) Hank Fung, Lacey Walker, Chris Conkle and John-Michael Wong work on a fiberglass mold of the hull.   Bart Nagel photos

Concrete canoe racers pin their hopes on ‘Calcatraz’
19 June 2002

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

Take a little Portland cement (Type II only), add some low density aggregates to obtain the correct water-cement ratio, mix and apply to the fiberglass hull of a canoe, let cure for several weeks and voila! A concrete canoe fit for competition.

Concrete samples cure in the lab
After designing the canoe's form, the team concocts and tests more than 30 different concrete mixes to produce the perfect light-but-strong result.

Berkeley’s recipe for the 130-pound canoe, affectionately called "Calcatraz," sets sail Monday, June 24, on Lake Mendota, next to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, in the 14th annual National Concrete Canoe Competition.

The campus’s entry — named after Alcatraz Island, with the "C" added to meet tournament rules that "Cal" be somewhere in the name — was designed by 14 undergraduate civil and mechanical engineering students. They are competing against 500 engineering students from 25 colleges nationwide in a test of brains, not brawn.

The race is something of an oxymoron — how can a concrete canoe float, let alone race? — but therein lies the challenge. The competition isn’t designed to be an Olympic racing event, but rather to encourage innovative thinking and to give promising young students a venue to show off their engineering prowess.

A splash of real-life learning

As most Berkeley contestants, past and present, would agree, there’s more to be learned when the paddles hit the water than can ever be taught in the classroom.

Team leader Margarita Constantinides
Margarita Constantinides, the concrete canoe team's project manager, won this year's Civil Engineering Department Citation. She will begin graduate school at Cal in the fall.

"I’ve learned more about canoes than I’ve ever learned from any class," says Margarita Constantinides, Calcatraz project manager, who received her bachelor of science degree in engineering this spring. "You learn not only the technical details of canoe construction, but to really pay attention to the small details. You realize that theory doesn’t always turn out to be right."

Calcatraz, a 21-foot-long, four-person canoe, is to arrive on the UW-Madison campus by trailer on June 20, one day before the start of a four-day national student conference marking the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 150th anniversary.

The canoe competition, cosponsored by ASCE and Master Builders, Inc., is one of three national engineering student contests being held simultaneously at the same location, along with the National Student Steel Bridge Competition and the National Daniel W. Mead Contest on engineering ethics. The competitions are expected to draw more than 1,500 engineering students, faculty, alumni and friends from campuses all over the country. Berkeley will compete in the National Concrete Canoe Competition beginning at 8 a.m. June 24.

Seeking the perfect mix

Calcatraz was hatched in the Concrete Lab in Davis Hall last August, when the aspiring Berkeley engineering students first met to begin brainstorming about canoe designs. They needed something lighter and faster than "Magical," Berkeley’s 2000 canoe entry, says Constantinides, so they broke up into smaller teams and focused on design, construction and selection of materials.

"We chose a special manmade aggregate that was low density and kind of like glass bubbles to use in our cement," Constantinides says. "The people responsible for the mixture came up with about 25 or 30 concrete mixes by varying the quantities of each mixture and the water-cement ratios. Then they had to test the strength of each mixture, essentially by breaking the concrete apart."

Other students concentrated on the hull design, reinforcements that would allow the boat to withstand maximum stress, and construction of the vessel.

"It was tough and we had conflicting goals," Constantinides says. The sprint races would require canoes that were long and slender for maximum speed; the slaloms require shorter canoes that can make tight turns around the buoys.

The solution was a shorter canoe.

"This year, our canoe is shorter in length, 21 feet instead of 23 feet, has a narrow beam for high, straight-line speed, a flat-bottom cross-section for improved initial stability, and a flared back section to allow the back paddler to sit further back and increase turning speed," Constantinides says.

Roots of concrete canoe racing

Concrete canoe races date back to the late 1960s. Both the University of Illinois-Urbana and UC Berkeley claim they held the first ASCE regional competitions in the early 1970s. In 1988 the concrete canoe race became a national competition, sponsored by ASCE and Master Builders, Inc.

Berkeley students must raise the majority of funding for their $20,000 canoes during the course of the school year. A modest amount of funding is provided by the university’s College of Engineering, but most of the money— about $12,000 to $13,000, says Constantinides — is raised through contributions from engineering and construction firms interested in publicity during the national competition. Company logos are displayed on the team’s T-shirts and canoe.

Berkeley usually performs well in the races, says Constantinides. In fact, the campus has four national titles under its belt. Last year, the team won first place in the regional competition, but placed ninth in the nationals.

Nine industry professionals will judge this year’s competition. Seventy percent of the total score for each team will be based on written, oral and display presentations of canoe design, construction and materials, as well as overall appearance and structural integrity of the boats. The remaining 30 percent of the score will be earned in a series of distance and sprint races on Lake Mendota.

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