BYU’s concrete canoe once again floats on to national competition

Courtesy Brett Borup
BYU engineering students stand in front of their concrete canoe, Inviscid. (Courtesy Brett Borup)

BYU has been chosen to compete in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ National Concrete Canoe Competition for the second year in a row.

They thought it was all over. After coming in second place to the Colorado School of Mines and their canoe, The Kraken, in the Rocky Mountain Conference of the ASCE National Concrete Canoe Competition, the Cougars thought they had lost their chances at competing in nationals. Team captain Rob Anderson said although he felt disappointed coming in second, “I think there’s value in knowing you put everything you had into it.”

Concrete Canoe is exactly what it sounds like: engineering students from around the world compete to see who can make the fastest, floatiest and prettiest chunk of concrete. Points are awarded based on a paper written about the canoe, an oral presentation, a visual display of the canoe and the canoe’s performance in a race. Competitions are first held regionally. Regional winners move on to the national competition.

Each year, teams that didn’t win their regional competition but cleared a certain bar of requirements can choose to submit their university’s name into a pool. Five of those are chosen at random to compete in the national competition held this year from June 6-8 in Melbourne, Florida.

BYU won the luck of the draw last year. They were chosen this year, too. Anderson said when the team found out, “We all just kind of lost it. It was crazy.”

Anderson, a 26-year-old civil engineering student from Oakland, California, said since receiving the news, his team has switched gears.

“Now we need to focus on what we need to do to at nationals,” he said.

Students in BYU’s engineering program have been working on their canoe and training for the competitions for almost a year. “It’s a whirlwind,” Anderson said. “It’s dog-eat-dog out there. Every team has fantastic canoes.”

Being qualified to enter the drawing is no small feat. Teams must have a high enough score on their report, return a form stating their desire to compete at nationals and finish in the top half of their student conference competition. Only 29 schools qualified to enter the final drawing of the over 370 student chapters involved in Concrete Canoe.

BYU has made the grade two years in a row now, which Beth Wiley, senior manager of student programs at the American Society of Civil Engineers, said is “pretty cool.”

BYU engineering students have been agonizing over their boat since last September. Getting a 300-pound slab of concrete to float isn’t as easy as it sounds, and team co-captain Melissa Adams Cowley, a 22-year-old from Vacaville, California, knows just how much effort it takes.

“It’s a lot of fun, just straining sometimes on academics and life,” Cowley said. “We become like a family by the end of it.”

The first step is the special concrete mix, which replaces the gravel normally found in concrete with shale and a special kind of lightweight glass bead. Students set the mix into a canoe shape, which needs to cure for 28 days. Cowley and her team cured their canoe by steaming the concrete boat in a makeshift sauna in the basement of the Clyde Building.

The Inviscid is displayed on its stand at the Rocky Mountain Conference Concrete Canoe competition (Brett Borup)

The team spends five hours a day on the finishing process, sanding, painting, patching, and sealing once the canoe is cured. Some of the civil engineering students even had to “try out” for the chance to be a paddler this year. The ones who made the cut have been conditioning and attending regular paddling practices.

BYU scored first place in two of the four categories and second place overall when they competed in the Rocky Mountain Conference regional competition back in April. Cowley said one of the reasons why BYU did so well in regionals this year is because they were able to attend nationals last year and learn from the best teams in the country.

BYU has to make some adjustments before the national competition on June 6. Parts of their paper need to be re-written, and their presentation needs to be adjusted. They’ll also have to find a replacement for Anderson, who isn’t able to attend the competition in June.

Students paddle their concrete canoe. (Brett Borup)

“Our goal was to get our team back to nationals,” Anderson said. “It’s such a different level of competition.” He said it’s also a great opportunity for new members of the Concrete Canoe team to learn from other universities.

The American Society of Civil Engineers also awarded BYU the 2019 Robert Ridgway Award, an award given to the most outstanding student chapter. The award has been in place since 1965, and BYU has won eight times.

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