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Some Sinkers Float to the Top: The 2003 National Concrete Canoe Competition
Louisiana State University raced one half of its split canoe, which was damaged by shipping.
Every summer, university students all over the country are eager to escape the pressures of school. But for some civil engineering students, the start of summer means something else: the National Concrete Canoe Competition, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers and Master Builders Inc.

This year, teams from 24 schools towed, tugged, and rowed their way to Philadelphia for the competition hosted by Drexel University. The main goal of this event is to provide aspiring civil engineers with hands-on experience and leadership skills by working with concrete mix designs.

Trekking a canoe across the country is not an easy task, as the Louisiana State University team learned the hard way. Between shipping and racing the canoe, "the back half became unrepairable, so we cut off the back half and raced one half," team member Kyle Murrell says. LSU continued to compete through the two-man sprint anyway. "It was going pretty well until we took on too much water," he adds. The boat ended up sinking a quarter of the way through the race. "But it made the crowd happy," says Murrell.

University of Wisconsin-Madison took first place in this year's competition.

Bringing home top honors this year was the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Finishing a strong second was the sole Canadian team, Université Laval, and in third place was the University of California at Berkeley. Based on the outcome of previous years, Clemson University was expected to place well, but its team ended up in fourth place.

Competition participants faced some new challenges. "This is the first year that [competitors] are required to have regular old sand in their canoes, and fly ash," Ray Cook, another NCCC committee member says. The use of these materials makes canoes much heavier than years past. The average weight of this year’s canoe is 160 lb, about 50 lb heavier than last year’s model. Competition organizers decided on the restriction of materials because participants in recent years had begun to use materials that either were not concrete or were not used for building purposes.

Although Wisconsin's canoe capsized in its final race, the team swam to the finish line.

The race itself only comprised 30% of the final score. An accompanying design paper was worth another 30% and an oral presentation 25%. The final product provided the remaining 15% of the score. In the past, the academics only factored into 20% of the overall score. Also banned this year was canoe painting. All coloring had to come from staining, so that competition judges did not have to take into account the affect of paint, which can act as a water sealant and can make the canoe more buoyant.

On race day, each squad participated in an array of qualifying races. Early in the morning, teams competed in the distance race and sprint race. In each race, the boat was paddled by either two male or two female team members, depending on the race. These were followed by the four-person co-ed sprint. The teams with the ten best times then competed in the finals later that afternoon.

Third place University of California at Berkeley cheers on its team.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison named their canoe "Chequamegon." The 22-foot beauty weighed in at 145 lb. In years past, the Badgers used rounder, slower designs. But this year, the canoe was modeled to be faster and more agile, referencing a local Native American tribe’s canoe design. Ironically, the name of the winning team’s canoe is Ojibwa for "place of shallow water." Even though it capsized in its final race, the team swam the boat across the finish line, and beat out the 23 other schools in the overall competition.

On the other hand, the canoe entry from the University of Maryland, which was participating for the first time in seven years, managed to stay afloat even though it was one of the competition's heaviest–at 230 lb–and held the school's entire ten-person squad.

New materials restrictions changed the design and weight of the canoes.

After two demanding days of business competitions and swamp tests, everybody was looking forward to smooth sailing on race day. That all changed in the 24 hours before the competition. Torrential downpours that had been plaguing the Northeast since April got the best of the docks and spectator stands at the original race site on the Schuylkill River.

"You didn’t have to look too far to see that it wasn’t exactly safe," says Joe Syrnick, engineer with the city of Philadelphia and an ASCE member. "We’re engineers; we’re supposed to be problem solvers." The race venue was then changed to a small lake in the city's FDR Park. Problem solved.

First Place: University of Wisconsin-Madison, "Chequamegon"

Second Place: Universite Laval, "Phoenix"

Third Place: University of California at Berkeley, "Bearkelium"

Fourth Place: Clemson University, "Main Course"

Fifth Place: University of Oklahoma, "Sooner or Later"


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