An innovative gradient finishing technique on University of Wisconsin's interior inlays gave an aesthetic edge.

Stiff competition

University of Wisconsin-Madison placed second, with Element, a 191-pound canoe made of integrally colored concrete with fiberglass mesh as reinforcement. “Placing second without any staining on the boat was incredibly significant,” said co-chair Stephen Ward, a third-year competitor. “Our team likes the look of integrally colored concrete, with inlays and overlays. We used a gradient finishing technique on the interior inlays.”

The team has used 100% recycled aggregates in its canoes since 2006. This year, their materials included palletized slag and recycled cellulose magazine fibers. They also chose an environmentally friendly plaster and burlap mold to cast the canoe, rather than fiberglass or Styrofoam.

The team's most innovative material was linoleum flooring as an inlay placeholder, a less costly and easier alternative to vinyl stencils and mounting tape. Their biggest hurdle was scheduling the finishing process. “We had a much more intricate design than previous years, with more colors,” Ward said. “Planning when to place and finish each color was very challenging.”

Université Laval of Quebec, Canada, won third place with Voltage. The 103-pound canoe, 45 pounds lighter than the next lightest competitor, raised the competition's bar for thin, lightweight design. The team cast its ¼-inch shotcrete hull monolithically, incorporating ribs and rails, and used carbon fiber mesh reinforcement. Voltage won all of the race components of the competition.

David Lewis, a bridge engineer for Santa Barbara County, Calif., served as a judge for the second consecutive year and has become an advocate for the program. “The canoe competition has really given me great confidence in up-and-coming engineers,” he said.

The competition continues to grow. Two new competitors, Utah State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato, joined the pack in 2011. University of Nevada, Reno, hosts the event in 2012, its 25th annniversary year.

The ASCE Committee on Student Services is a unique opportunity to meet and support some of the best and brightest young engineers. To volunteer as a judge for a future competition, more on this year's event, visit or

Videos: University of Wisconsin - Madison Concrete Canoe Animations
University of Wisconsin - Madison's team created a digital animation to show how its canoe "Element" was built, layer by layer. Videos: University of Wisconsin - Madison

Mold construction process: A prototype canoe was made by attaching plywood cross sections to a strongback and covering it with marine-grade plywood. Plaster-soaked burlap sheets covered the prototype to form the mold. Last, the mold was flipped and the prototype was removed.

Construction process: Element is made of three layers of concrete (blue, 'uncolored', and black), two layers of fiberglass mesh, and six steel prestress cables running the length of the canoe. The animation shows the order of each layer/reinforcement piece.