Whatever happened to Illinois Tech’s Concrete Canoe? (pt 3)

IIT’s Concrete Canoe team poses with their finished (and repaired) canoe.

by AARON GRUDOWSKI, Illinois Tech Civil Engineering Student, Concrete Canoe Captain | April 20, 2017

This is the final article in our three-part series. Each year, roughly 200 ASCE Student Chapters go head to head in the annual Concrete Canoe Competitionwhere student engineers design, construct, and race a canoe made of concrete against other university teams. This year, we’re once again following the Illinois Tech team as they try to make it to Nationals in Colorado this June 17-19.

Finally, it was here once again. The start of the 2017 Great Lakes Student Conference. I headed over to our shop to help hoist our canoe onto a moving truck.

“1, 2, 3, lift!” yelled Rafal, our team’s other captain.

“Holy cow, this thing is heavy!” someone called out. More groans could be heard as we struggled to bring our heavy canoe over to the U-Haul. We placed it on top of memory foam pads and insulation before strapping it in to prevent it from bouncing around on the ride up to Milwaukee. Climbing in the passenger’s seat of the truck, I settled in for the ride north. After a few minutes, my eyes began to close, and before I knew it, I was out like a light.

“Get up man!” Rafal called out, waking me up from my nap. We were only 10 minutes away from our destination, and I needed to help find the parking lot.

“Turn left, and the lot will be on our right,” I said. “Yep, there are some other trailers parked there already.”

“Man, this is a tight parking lot,” said Rafal. “I can barely get around these corners…”

Buummpp!!  We froze at the sound and lurch from the truck as it climbed the curb.

“Just roll off the curb as slowly as possible,” I said to Rafal.

Thud.  Unfortunately, rolling off a seven-inch curb (I went back and measured it afterwards) was not a simple thing. All we could do was pray that everything was alright as we pulled into a spot and parked the truck. I unlocked the latch, lifted the door, and jumped into the back.

Is this the beginning of the end?

The crack that nearly ended IIT’s season before it began.

A huge crack ran along the entirety of our canoe, literally splitting it in half. The only thing holding it together was the reinforcement sheeting, and even that was stretched to its limits. For several minutes, we sat there, devastated. Would this truly be two years in a row that we had a failed canoe?

“What are we going to do?” asked Daksh, our captain in training.

It was 6:30 p.m., and we had until 7:30 a.m. the following morning to get it to the lake for race day.  We had a long night ahead of us.

After a trip to Home Depot, an emergency call for patching materials, and a lot of problem solving, eight of our chapter members finally placed the last bit of patch on the canoe, not knowing if our solution was going to work. It was 4:30 a.m.

Several hours later…

“IIT, get ready for your swamp test!” announced the race coordinators. In the first challenge in the competition — the swamp test — teams fill their canoes with water and push them under water to see if they drop to the bottom or float, just below the surface. If a canoe sinks, buoyant aids are added, some points are deducted, and the team gets to try one more time. If it fails a second time, the team is unable to race.

“Fingers crossed guys,” I said as we placed it in the water.

When we let go, it floated! We began filling it with water until it couldn’t hold anymore, and then we pushed it under. Sadly, it did not pop back up to the surface, so we failed our first trial. On the positive side was that after the test, no cracks had appeared. So far, the patch was holding!

We brought the canoe back on shore, duct taped some pool noodles and Styrofoam to it to increase its buoyancy, and prepared for our second swamp test.

This time, it popped back up! Now, it was time for races. First up was the women’s 600-meter endurance race, then the men’s, followed by the women’s, men’s, and co-ed 200-meter sprint race.

Our women’s team paddled out to the starting line. 3…2…1…Go! My stomach was doing circles as I watched them cut one corner after another, each time praying that the canoe would not split in half on them. 600 meters later, they returned — a little cold, but dry!

Next was the men’s race, and just like the women, Rafal and I made it back without any issues.  All of the sprints went smoothly, and before we knew it, we had made it through the day.  Our patch had worked!

Rafal and I smile after a hard-earned, successful race.

So how did we do?

Out of the 18 teams in the competition, we got 10th place in races. It didn’t get us to Nationals, but it was a win for a team that had two halves of a canoe just hours before. Even better, it was a huge improvement from last year’s canoe, which we all affectionately refer to as The Titanic these days.

After all of the hard work, long nights, occasional temper flare-ups, and seemingly endless issues, our canoe worked. And in building it, we had made countless memories, formed some truly great friendships, increased our engineering knowledge, and — best of all — proved that concrete can indeed float.

Until next year!

Read the 3-part series from the beginning

For last year’s coverage of the Concrete Canoe and to learn more about Illinois Tech, click here.