Whatever Floats their Boat: Cal Team’s Canoe of Concrete Edged Out in Competition

By Martin Snapp

Update: Well, you can’t win ‘em all. The Cal Concrete Canoe team finished fourth at the Mid-Pacific Regional Competition at Cal State Fresno on April 5, behind third place finisher Sacramento State; second place finisher Tongji University from Shanghai, China; and the Golden Bears’ arch-rivals, the University of Nevada-Reno Wolfpack. The fourth place finish means the record-winning Bears will miss this year’s national competition. “Considering all the challenges we faced, we’re not too surprised,” says team leader Alvin Wong. “But it is a little disappointing.”

Fish got to swim, birds got to fly, and engineering students got to do wild and wacky things.

For instance: designing, building, and racing canoes made of concrete.

And nowhere do they do it better than at UC Berkeley, where the California Concrete Canoe team has qualified for the finals of the National Concrete Canoe Competition—aka “the America’s Cup of Civil Engineering”—a record 19 times and won the title a record five times since the competition, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, began in the 1960s.

“But the use of concrete in floating vessels goes back a lot farther than that,” says Alvin Wong, this year’s project leader. “In 1848 Joseph Louis Lambert built concrete boats for use at his estate in Miraval, France. During World War II, concrete was used to build barges instead of steel, which was needed for warships.”

But doesn’t concrete sink?

“Not if you use the right mix of concrete and aggregate, which is traditionally made of sand and rocks. The aggregate is what makes concrete so heavy—at least, normal concrete. But in our concrete, we replace the aggregate with hollow glass beads. That creates thousands of tiny air pockets, which lightens the load.”

So why concrete?

“Because this is such a ridiculous challenge, it’s a ton of fun and a way to prove we can build anything we set our minds to. In addition, most engineering departments, especially Berkeley, are very theoretical. This gives us practical experience in working with a material we’ll be using a lot for the rest of our careers.”

Isn’t concrete hard on the paddlers’ rear ends?

“No, but only because a concrete canoe doesn’t have seats, so we kneel on our knees and feet, instead,” says paddler and concrete team member Kenny Hua. “It’s a killer on your feet.”

How’s the speed compared to a conventional canoe?

“It has to do with inertia and momentum,” says Hua, who also rows for the Cal Dragon Boat club. “Initially, the concrete boat is really hard to move. But once you get going, the momentum carries it along and you really feel it glide along the water.”

Currently, the members of Cal Concrete Canoe—the number of civil engineering students hovers around 30 every year, depending on people’s interest and time availability—are working overtime getting this year’s canoe, Calamari, ready for the Mid-Pacific Regional Conference (Mid-Pac for short), which will take place at Cal State Fresno from April 3-5.

“We’ll keep working on it literally up to the last minute,” says Wong.

As always, their main competition is expected to be the boat from the University of Nevada, Reno.

“We usually finish 1-2 every year in the Mid-Pac,” Wong says. “Sometimes they win, sometimes we do.”

The winning boat will go to the nationals at the University of Pittsburgh on June 19-21 to compete against the winners of the other 17 regional districts. If Cal wins, they will go. But due to a quirk in the rules, if Reno wins and Cal finishes second, both teams will go because Reno finished in the top five at last year’s nationals, earning the Mad-Pacific Region an additional slot this year.

The teams will be judged on four categories: final product (the canoe and display), technical paper, oral presentation, and paddling. 

The building of Calamari started last fall, when each subgroup within Cal Concrete Canoe assumed its specific responsibilities. First, the design team researched materials, hull design and structural analysis - the technical part of the project. Then the concrete team took over, researching and testing new materials to produce the strongest and lightest concrete possible. Next, the hull design team analyzed different design features to find the best characteristics for the competition.

“There’s always a trade-off,” says construction manager Erick Paepke. “A rounder hull design makes the boat easier to turn, but it also makes it harder for the paddlers to control. Our job is to find the optimal compromise.”

Then the structural analysis team created models of the canoe and subjected them to the stresses the full-sized boat would experience in competition.

“We’re not worried about minor cracks,” says Paepke. “The concrete won’t leak. We’re worried about a major failure and the whole thing capsizing.”

During spring semester the project shifted from design to construction. On Feb. 8 they cast the canoe by placing layers of concrete and reinforcement on a fiberglass form to create the structural shell. Then they sanded it for weeks until it was slippery smooth.

“A smooth surface cuts down on drag,” says Wong. “But another big reason is aesthetics. We usually score very high in paper and presentation, and we’ve been doing OK in the races. But we’ve been struggling lately with final product, which is how our canoe and display look, so this year we devoted more time and energy to that.”

That was the responsibility of the graphics team, who created murals for the canoe and the display, as well as the technical paper template. Meanwhile, the paddling team has been practicing all year to prepare for the five races: male and female endurance, male and female sprint, and co-ed sprint. While Calamari was being built they practiced with fiberglass canoes weighted down to simulate rowing the heavier concrete boat.

Calamari continues a hallowed tradition of including either “Cal” or “Bears” in the boat’s name. The 2006-2007 boat was named Bear Force One, followed by Vocal (2007-08), Bear Area (2008-09), Calce Liberatus (2009-10), Cybear (2010-11), Graffical (2011-12), and last year’s boat, Zombear.

“Cal is home to an exceptional Civil and Environmental Engineering program,” says the team website. “However, this academic rigor has come with an unexpected consequence. Students who enter the dungeon-like engineering library healthy and enthusiastic emerge later as lifeless husks of their former selves—zombies, if you will. So we paid tribute to the sacrifices made in the pursuit of intellectual advancement with the name ‘Zombear.’ “

“The engineering department gives us a lot of love,” says Wong. “But outside the department we’re not very well known.”

To help support Cal Concrete Canoe, visitors can go to their site or send a check made out to CEE JFC, co/Joan Chamberlain, 750 Davis Hall, UC Berkeley, 94720-1714, and write “Concrete Canoe” in the subject line. To receive a charitable donation status, email Chamberlain at joan@ce.berkeley.edu.

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