Cal Poly civil engineering students built a concrete canoe for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) annual national competition using sustainability practices.

This year, the event will be hosted by the university’s Society of Civil Engineers (SCE) student chapter on Lopez Lake June 17 to 19.

A concrete canoe may seem like an oxymoron, but engineering students used their knowledge to make a sinking ship float. A previous paddler and member of the hosting committee this year, civil engineering graduate student Gary Welling said he often gets strange looks from people when he tells them about the boat.

“They say it sounds more like a concrete submarine,” Welling said.

Welling said the canoe can make a 100-meter round-trip in one minute and 10 seconds, and the ingenuity comes from using materials in the concrete mix that weigh less than water.

The combination of materials used in the mixing process includes cement, the “sticky stuff” that binds concrete together and has a negative carbon footprint because it catches carbons in the air, Welling said.

Welling’s teammate Greg Stone, also a civil engineering graduate student, said cement is normally made up of sand and rocks, but for this project they use glass and coal. He said this is important for the focus of sustainability in the competition.

“This is cool stuff in construction and (cement) mixing that aren’t common,” Stone said.

The team’s canoe is made up of 70 percent recycled product. The design process includes using thermal imaging to look at the mixture. Project manager and civil engineering senior Kyle Marshall, said they weren’t willing to go into detail about their design analysis before the competition.

The team used Kitchen-Aid mixers to make small batches of concrete that are placed in the mold for the canoe. The boat from last year weighed 245 pounds and was 20 feet long.

Marshall said this year he hopes the new canoe will weigh 80-90 pounds less by race time to increase the speed.

Mix-design captain and civil engineering senior Stefanie Gille said they picked an Amazonian theme for the vibrant colors and for the name.

“‘Amazona’ is the Spanish word for ‘destroyer of boats,’” Gille said.

The materials (which include water used from rain collected during the last few storms), design, aesthetics, presentation and race events are all used to determine the winner of the nationals, Marshall said.

The ASCE competition brings 25 universities together to race the concrete boats built from start to finish by engineering students across the country. The society sets the rules for the contest and specifications for the canoes. Stone said they received an 80-page rule book in September that includes the basic dimensions for the canoe.

The event brings students together through the university chapter to use skills they’ve learned, Welling said.

Last June, Cal Poly SCE placed third at the competition held at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. This year is the first time Cal Poly will host the competition. Marshall said they want to use that as an advantage.

“We’re excited to defend the house on home turf,” he said.

The Cal Poly team has made the top five at nationals for the past four years, the only school to do so. The biggest competitors the team is looking at this year are University of California, Berkeley and University of Florida, Stone said. Berkeley beat Cal Poly in Alabama last year, taking first place. Schools qualify for the competition by winning regional events, and the Cal Poly team has that down to a science.

The student chapter has placed first in 14 of the past 16 years at regional competitions, including at the ASCE Pacific Southwest Regional Conference on April 10 and 11 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  The Pacific Southwest Regional Conference pits Cal Poly against schools like the University of California, Los Angeles, Cal Poly Pomona, the University of Arizona, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of Hawaii.

The national races will include a presentation of each team’s design and building process. The races held include a 500-meter straightaway, men’s and women’s endurance slaloms and several sprints, Welling said.

“The most exciting is the top five race when you can’t tell who is where because it’s that close,” Welling said.

A slideshow of the canoe being built is posted online at

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