Students from the University of Washington fill their canoe with water for the  swamp test, which measures their canoe's buoyancy.
Students from the University of Washington fill their canoe with water for the swamp test, which measures their canoe's buoyancy.

Organizers were concerned for the safety of their 200 guests. When the photographer signaled that he had successfully taken the group photo, a member from the University of Washington's host group called for everyone's attention.

Then, using a hand-held bullhorn, the crisp voice bellowed, “If you're planning on some paddling practice this afternoon, stay close to the university's waterfront. If you go out too far from shore, you'll end up in the main channel where the big boats sail. Their wakes can swamp even the best designed canoe.”

He was addressing the contestants in the 20th Annual National Concrete Canoe Competition (NCCC). Participants from 20 colleges and universities gathered in June at the University of Washington's campus in Seattle to vie for the title of best canoe design team.

Fortunately, everyone followed the advisory and the weekend event was trouble-free. The last thing anyone wanted was to damage two semesters of hard work.

The NCCC is much more than a three-day event. It's an annual rite of passage for some of the nation's best civil engineering students. Collectively, more than 60,000 student hours had been applied to the seemingly impossible task of making concrete canoes float.

Perhaps an even better indicator of the contest's importance is the time involved at the regional competition, which may have been more than 250,000 hours. This total could well exceed the sum of all scheduled lecture hours on concrete nationwide.

A learning curve

While the competition's focus is on race day, organizers from the American Society of Civil Engineers rules committee try to bring a real-life element of engineering to the teams.

The process starts when the new contest rules are sent out just before the fall semester. The rules committee, led by Clemson University professor Brad Putman, tries to offer a new challenge to the roughly 75 teams that build canoes for the regional competitions. These events are held in late March or early April.

This year's rule changes included a shorter hull length restriction of 20 feet. But the real kicker for competitors this year was how to deal with the air entrainment requirement.

The rules combine academic achievement and athletic ability. The races, which feature endurance and sprints for both men and women, counted for only 25% of the teams' overall score.

The remaining 75% was based equally on a technical paper that highlighted the planning, development, testing, and construction of the team's canoe; a formal oral presentation in which the team had to detail their design construction, racing ability, and other innovative features, as well as explaining their choices to the judges during a question and answer session; and the final racing canoe and project display.

The one team that had their form down pat was the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their win this year was the fifth in a row. They designed the Descendant, Madison's 19.11-foot-long, 179-pound, natural gray canoe, to maximize the rowers' power. The team will be invited to participate in the 30th Annual Dutch Concrete Canoe Challenge in the Netherlands in September.