Civil engineering student Thomas Curtis said disbelief is the most common reaction when he tells others that he is a member of UCLA’s concrete canoe team.
“When we tell people we’re building a concrete canoe, almost nobody will believe that concrete can float,” said Curtis, a fourth-year who is the project co-director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
At the start of each school year, the civil engineering students embark on a yearlong process of constructing a working canoe out of reinforced concrete to demonstrate the versatility of the material.
The students design and construct a concrete canoe that floats when completely filled with water to meet a state safety regulation for canoes.
They also enter the canoe in a variety of races, including a men’s sprint and women’s slalom.
The concrete canoe team members spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons crafting the canoe they will take to the annual ASCE Pacific Southwest Regional Conference, where they will compete with concrete canoe teams from 17 other universities in the Pacific Southwest region.
The concrete canoes are judged on performance in five races, the overall design, a paper describing the design and an oral presentation.
This year, the competition will be held in April at California State University, Northridge.
Nicky Galloway, a third-year civil engineering student and senior adviser, said though the team has been successful in this event in recent years ““ placing third in last year’s regional competition ““ they hope to do better this April.
The team’s goal is to place first or second at the regional conference, which will give them the opportunity to compete in the society’s national concrete canoe competition in June, Galloway said.
For Drew Kirkpatrick, a fourth-year civil engineering student and senior adviser of the concrete canoe team, the creative process began weeks before the start of the school year, when the rules for the competition were released in early September.
Kirkpatrick said he designed the canoe with speed and maneuverability in mind.
Though the team has always worked with a male mold in the past, Kirkpatrick said the team chose to work with a female mold, which means casting concrete inside the mold, to achieve a smoother surface on the exterior of the canoe.
Kirkpatrick described this change as one of the team’s biggest hurdles because of their inexperience with the new process.
As head of the design this year, Kirkpatrick was able to incorporate his passion for the environment into the canoe’s design.
With sustainability in mind, he used a concrete mix that incorporates recycled materials, including glass beads, called Poraver.
Kirkpatrick said he plans to work with materials like Poraver that can be used to make a form of concrete that is both strong and good for the environment.
The team has spent months since the beginning of the school year perfecting the low-density concrete mix that they plan to pour into the final mold on Feb. 2.
“We make cylinders and plates of concrete mixes with fiberglass reinforcements and we test them to see if they can hold,” Kirkpatrick said.
For Curtis, work on the concrete canoe gave him the opportunity to use the theories that he studied in his math and physics classes in real-life situations.
He said the project helps civil engineering students gain hands-on experience working with the building material that civil engineers work with the most.
“At UCLA, we’re very theoretical. Most of our classes are pure calculation,” Curtis said.
“It’s a great chance for (freshmen and sophomores) to see what they can actually do with civil engineering,” Curtis said.
Galloway said her involvement in the concrete canoe team has allowed her to contact concrete companies, meet professionals in the industry and learn about the building products they carry.
She also said one of the most rewarding experiences has been training with the team for the five races the concrete canoe must enter.
A team of five men and five women practice racing in concrete canoes each Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m, Galloway said.
In addition to practice, each team member commits to going to the gym at least three times a week.
Kirkpatrick said the concrete canoes they practice with at Marina del Rey attest to the durability and consistent performance of the concrete canoes from previous years.
“We have canoes from last year, the year before, some almost 10 years old and still going strong,” he said.
Kirkpatrick said concrete canoes crack and break every year on the lake during the competition, but that has never happened to UCLA’s canoe team.
Curtis said the only difference between paddling in a concrete canoe is the added weight.
“Because it’s heavier, it’s lower in the waterline. It’s a lot harder to paddle because it’s so heavy ““ it’s more work, but that’s about it,” he said.