northeastern university seal

Will It Float: Concrete Canoe

students posed in front of a concrete canoe

Written by Maria Kelly is a fourth year civil engineering student. 

About Me

Maria is the project manager of the concrete canoe team along with Steven Hock and Alysa Longo. She is currently on co-op at VHB and working with the Transit and Rail team.

Will It Float?

Concrete canoe provides an incredible outlet for engineering students to see what they are learning in class using fun, hands-on methods while building a canoe made of lightweight concrete. It not only shows members how to design a concrete mix and create a structurally sound canoe, but also how to follow tight deadlines, communicate within a team, and present designs and results to the public. While we spend a portion of the year on training and practicing new ideas, the ultimate goal is to design a strong concrete mix, build a mold that will result in an aerodynamic canoe, and place the concrete upon it so that it will hold up on race day and have an attractive final finish.

My experience with concrete canoe began in 2013, where I played a part in building the boat Incendia. Since then I have learned the skills from great project managers so that I can be part of leading the team myself. I have found it incredibly rewarding to see hard work accumulate into the final product that happens towards the end of April every year.

This year our canoe, Seven Seas, was built by about 20 hardworking team members who met at least twice a week beginning in September. The Seven Seas was dubbed in hopes that our canoe could withstand a voyage across the seven seas, and help us to victory at the competition on April 23-24. We also created a display board to coincide with this concept. While doing well in the competition is important to our team, we also like to focus on change; new materials, designs, and techniques are encouraged so we don’t do the same thing over and over every year. We drastically changed our concrete mix this year to increase the strength and reduce the cost. We also used several new methods for mold removal which accelerated our timeline and allowed us to redistribute our man-hours into more important tasks.

There were a ton of rule changes to the competition for this concrete canoe season. Many of them were minimal, but the biggest change was that rather than staining the canoe with elaborate designs that link back to our theme, we were only permitted to dye our concrete when we poured the canoe. The Seven Seas, although dyed a deep red, turned into a muted coral. We didn’t know how the dye would act over time, but the coral ended up fitting into our seven seas theme seamlessly.

When competition had finally come, the team had the chance to show off all our hard work, along with 10 other teams in the New England region. There are two days of competition- the first consisting of display boards showing each teams process of building their canoe, and presentations to showcase the unique strategy that every team uses to tackle the challenge of building a concrete canoe.

Northeastern’s first day went off without a hitch. Our display board was centered around a large map of the world printed on wood, which created an authentic look for our theme and put us among the strongest teams for display. We had previously turned in a design paper that we were extremely confident in which received a good overall score. Our presenters, Tim Cao and Dan Denette explained the process to our final product with total confidence and sans a stutter. I knew that Saturday put us towards the top because very few teams rivaled our polished display and practiced professionalism.

The second day of competition is comprised of final canoe judging as well as five races—a men’s sprint, women’s sprint, men’s endurance, women’s endurance, and a co-ed sprint, dubbed the “party boat”. I learned that we had not participated in all the races since 2011, so this weekend we were determined to do so. Before the races began each team needed to completely fill their canoe with water and the boat had to break the surface of the lake within two minutes of being filled. This “swamp test” happens in order to deem each boat safe for paddlers to race in, and ensures each boat can float.

Before the races and the swamp test, the addition of dye had seemed like such a simple change, but ended up being a huge challenge for our team. The dye made our mix much drier than in past years, so we worried the canoe might crack in half and that would be it for us with the competition. But the canoe survived the move into the truck for transport, and the trip to our display stands on the second day, so our spirits were high. Even with our renewed hope, after the swamp test we thought we were done for.

A longitudinal crack down one of the curves of the canoe had occurred, and we knew we were going to take water in. We were faced with a tough decision: do we duct tape our canoe and solider on, or do we end racing for the day and keep our canoe intact, which is vital to final scoring? After weighing the options, we patched our canoe up, decided we had worked too hard to not race, and sent the Seven Seas back into the lake.

The duct tape helped tremendously- although we took in some water every race, we were able to dry the canoe out after each one and continue. Our paddlers rowed swiftly all day and helped us keep our high position in the overall standings.

Despite our troubles with taking some water in, our amazing display board combined with the strong presentation, design paper, and lightning paddlers resulted in a third place finish. I took a lot away from this weekend from seeing what other teams did as well as seeing what our team can do better next year. I am so proud of Northeastern and cannot wait to see what we come up with for 2017.

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering