Logo: University of Southern California

Concrete Canoe

USC team gets ready to compete in ASCE Pacific Southwest Regional Conference

March 02, 2005 —

Take a sack of Portland cement, add a dash of plastic cement and fly ash, mix with some low-density glass beads and leaven with water to obtain the correct water-cement ratio. Apply three layers to a wood-and-Styrofoam canoe hull, let cure for 28 days,

Richard Stegemeier, captain of the canoe team, spreads out mesh that will cover the first layer of cement on the canoe hull. 
and presto! A concrete canoe fit for competition.

That’s USC’s recipe for an 18-foot-long, 120-pound canoe, yet to be named, but nearing completion in the basement of Kaprielian Hall for the upcoming 2005 Pacific Southwest Regional Conference (PSWRC) on the Cal State University, Fullerton campus.  The canoe competition, which is cosponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Master Builders, Inc., will be held April 2 at Puddingstone Lake, near the Cal State University, Fullerton campus.

Fourteen undergraduate civil and mechanical engineering students designed the campus’s entry.  They are competing against engineering students from more than a dozen university campuses in the Southwest in a test of brains, not brawn.

What’s concrete canoe racing all about?

“It’s about making concrete buoyant enough to float and learning about canoe construction, ” says Richard Stegemeier, a junior civil and environmental engineering student, who is captain of the 10-member team.  The competition isn’t designed to be an Olympic racing event, but rather to encourage innovative thinking and to give promising young students a venue to show off their engineering prowess.

Design Features
The four-person canoe was hatched last October, when the engineering students first met to brainstorm ways to improve last year’s entry.  The canoe was affectionately dubbed “Helen,” for Helen of Troy.  The students focused on three areas: canoe design, construction and selection of materials.

After designing the canoe’s form — a mold made of Styrofoam sheets that were glued to pre-cut pieces of wood — they concocted and tested different concrete mixes to find the perfect light-but-strong mixture.

“We used micron-sized glass beads, an aggregate that is low density, and varied the water-cement ratios until we came up with a mixture that worked,” said Jamie Adams, a senior civil engineering student, who grew up in Hawaii and is an experienced paddler.   “The mixture is basically 50 percent binding
Arash Malakan, a Ph.D. student who is canoe adviser, helps Katharina Zappei stretch the mesh.   
materials and 50 percent aggregates. We had to keep it light weight, so we tested the strength basically by breaking the concrete apart.”

Three layers of concrete are applied to the canoe’s mold, each layer divided by fiberglass mesh to add strength, explained Arash Malakan, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering.   

“This is the same technique that is used to build most concrete structures,” Stegemeier added.  “Concrete does not withstand tension, so we used mesh to increase tensile strength.  In large concrete structures, builders will use
L-R: Paul Garcia, Richard Stegemeier and Kasie Lee Noren, all juniors in CE Building Science, put the final touches on “Sea-zure,” this year’s entry. 
steel reinforcing bars to strengthen the concrete.” 

Layering and Curing
Between layers, the students had to cover the boat with a plastic tarp to keep the cement moist and prevent it from cracking, said Katharina Zappei, a freshman who plans to declare a major in civil engineering.  When the cement has dried, the mesh is cut away from a tension apparatus that keeps it tightly stretched during construction. 

“It takes about 28 days to reach the desired compressive strength after it has been poured,“ said Stegemeier.  “Then we will sand the canoe and apply a sealer to the inside and outside of the hull.“

Strict PSWRC regulations limit glitzy paint jobs and school logos.  Students are not allowed to apply paint, although they can add certain ingredients to the
Jamie Adams scoops up glass beads, one of several ingredients used to make the concrete canoe.
cement mix to create some color.  They will use decals for the USC logo and canoe’s name, but the lettering must be a specific point size and the boat’s name can only be located on the side of the bow or stern.

The annual ASCE Pacific Southwest Regional Conference is a competition of university students from 16 civil and environmental engineering schools in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.   Eighteen regional events will be held in late March and early April. 
The Viterbi School team will select four paddlers and one alternate to compete in five distance and sprint races. In addition to the races, the team will be judged on oral and written presentations, and a display of their canoe design, construction and materials. 

The first place overall winner will advance to the 2005 National Concrete Canoe Competition, to be held in May.

--Diane Ainsworth