Forty Years of Concrete Canoes
What began 40 years ago as a civil engineering class project at the University of Illinois has now grown into an organized annual tradition for engineering students worldwide. A look at this singular learning experience.
Surprisingly, the idea of using concrete to construct watercraft has been around for more than 100 years. During the 19th century, a watercraft was made out of concrete for a zoo display in Amsterdam. During WWII, cargo vessels were constructed out of concrete due to the shortage of steel.
By the end of 1970, the first modern concrete canoe had been constructed. It vaguely resembled a canoe, weighed 370 pounds, and was appropriately named Mis-Led. Purdue heard about the project and, naturally, challenged Illinois to a race.
This would be only the start of what would grow into a worldwide competition. The idea caught on, and year after year, more and more teams competed in various races throughout the country. However, all of these competitions were organized independently of one another. The American Concrete Institute, with input from another University of Illinois professor, Francis J. Young, attempted to draw up a set of rules to organize the competitions. Nevertheless, it was not until 1987 that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) formed a committee to organize the competition nationally, under the direction of Professor R. John Craig from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In 1988, the first National Concrete Canoe Competition was held in East Lansing, Mich. In 1989, ASCE established a permanent subcommittee to ensure the execution of the annual concrete canoe competition.
Every year since then, thousands of students at hundreds of universities across the nation have challenged themselves to build and race concrete canoes. The nine-month project takes extraordinary engineering ability and dedication to complete. Students who call themselves “concrete canoers” are a special breed. They are ready to devote thousands of hours to complete a project that gives them no class credit, no cash prizes, and no fame. They do it because of the challenge, the camaraderie, and the sheer excitement of watching a canoe, made of concrete, compete against the top teams in the nation.
With the 40th anniversary approaching, it is hard to believe that a class project from the University of Illinois has become, and still remains, a worldwide competition. Certainly, Clyde Kesler and his colleague Francis J. Young had no idea of what would become of the competition. On the 10th anniversary of the competition, Young wrote, “Now in 1981, it is intriguing to look back at Illinois’ participation in concrete canoe racing before it becomes merged into legend or lost irretrievably in the gathering dust of forgotten files.”
As a concrete canoer for more than 15 years, I am glad to say that Illinois’ participation has become merged into legend and has no sign of gathering dust. I believe I echo the words of all concrete canoers when I say that I would not be the engineer I am today without concrete canoe. Thank you, Clyde Kesler, for challenging your students to push the limits of their imagination while having fun in the process. I can only hope that the next 40 years will be as exciting as the past 40 years.
Editor's nore: The author of this story, CEE graduate student Armen Amirkhanian has been involved with concrete canoes ever since he could walk; his father was the faculty adviser for the team at Clemson University. Armen is an adviser for the Illinois concrete canoe team, the Boneyard Yacht Club and is currently studying at Illinois under Associate Professor Jeffery Roesler.
For more information, including archived pictures and documents, go to www.concretecanoepictures.com and visit the History section. For more information about the current progress of the Illinois team, the Boneyard Yacht Club, email Armen Amirkhanian or visit http://netfiles.uiuc.edu/ro/www/BoneyardYachtClub.
Writer/Contact: Armen Amirkhanian, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Celeste Arbogast Bragorgos, director of communications, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, 217/333-6955.
If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-7716.