“Sign up on the bulletin board!” shouted the guy walking down a corridor in Riggs Hall, waving a flyer at me. I was a junior civil engineering major at Clemson University, and I was hooked. Build and race a concrete canoe in competition with my classmates? Like many of the opportunities in my life, this one was just too tempting to pass up. For Civil Engineering types, the event, born out of intramural races held in the 60s, is the equivalent of the America’s Cup.
I got together with a team of other students, which included just one other female. Most of the members were seniors, seemingly wiser and more experienced than us mere juniors. Over late-night strategy sessions, we hammered out our plan for materials, design and construction. We argued and debated and gave each other headaches. What kind of concrete mix would float the best? Of course, the older students knew about the “secret” ingredient, nicknamed “Perlite’s Delight,” for its lightweight insulating properties. While not really a secret, Perlite is produced when volcanic glass is heated to 1,600 degrees F. (871 C. for you scientists) then pops like popcorn, expanding to 13 times its former size. When Perlite is mixed with cement to make concrete, the result is an incredibly lightweight material that is perfect for a concrete canoe. (Perlite is also used in potting soil—those little white balls scattered in bagged soil found at the gardening shop.)
Our unique recipe of raw materials and design would determine the speed of our canoe and, most importantly, the buoyancy. Careful calculations, experimentation and testing went on for many months, the best part for many of the geeks on my team (myself included). We jumped at the chance to evaluate and test different practices on our canoe, from fluid mechanics to materials engineering, all without the use of CAD.
Once built, the time came to decide who would paddle our canoe and who would stay on shore. Despite being the youngest (and smallest) member of the team, I was gung-ho to be one of the paddlers. The more experienced students, several of whom had gone overboard in past competitions, were only too happy to pass the paddle to me.
That year, the course was on the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, upstream from where it joins the Monongahela to form the mighty Ohio. On race day, a light dusting of snow covered Three Rivers Park. The river was swift and menacing, cresting over the banks due to the recent spring snowmelt. The enthusiasm I had sustained all those months suddenly waivered. Would our canoe really stand up to these conditions? Had all our late-night arguments resulted in a boat that would sink sooner rather than later? Should I fall back on being petite and let someone else take the paddle, after all?
No. My team was counting on me. I took my place in the bow, gripping my paddle. The wind was cold, gray waves slapping our Perlite hull. The starting gun banged, and we paddled hard together against the current.
Funny how memory does not retain all the details. I do not know if we won the race, or what our time was. However, I do remember we did not SINK! And nobody went overboard. We finished the race, and we had a great time. I remember clearly the thrill of attempting what seemed impossible and working with my team to puzzle out the solution.
At JA, I have found the same ingenuity and esprit de corps: We work together to overcome challenges, and we come up with our own solutions for each new problem. Our goals in each case are very similar to the goals of my long-ago concrete canoe team: be innovative, stay afloat, paddle together as a team – and make what seems impossible possible.
The official 2017 National Concrete Canoe Competition will be held in June and hosted by the Colorado School of Mines.