Second-Place Triumph: Concrete Canoe Team Beats Old Rival

April 5, 2024 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

The Row-Tunda finished second, but its crew members still considered it a triumph.

The University of Virginia’s concrete canoe “A Team” was the runner-up in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Concrete Canoe Competition in Blacksburg, finishing behind Virginia Tech and ahead of Fairmont State University from Fairmont, West Virginia. In total, nine teams competed in the event, held in late March.

“The team was excited to place ahead of Fairmont State, as that team has secured a first-place finish in this competition for more than the last 15 years,” UVA co-captain Leon Crawford said. 

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UVA’s B Team, made up of first- and second-year students and not eligible to advance to nationals, also entered a canoe, The Sea Siren. Both teams were judged on the project proposal, the resulting canoe, presentation and finally the races – a sprint and slalom on Claytor Lake. 

The A Team placed first for technical presentation and second overall. Alas, only the winning team advanced to the national competition in Utah.

Creating the Canoe

Two weeks before the competition, there was a muted excitement in the basement of Albert Small Hall as a dozen-and-a-half students gently separated the two halves of a wooden frame used as the mold for the concrete canoe, which they dubbed “The Row-Tunda.” They moved tentatively about their tasks, as if the slightest mishap would shatter the conveyance which had been curing for 28 days. 

Students carrying canoe into water
Claire Sharpe, left, and Miller School student Cary Worrall help lift the boat out of the water. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, UVA Engineering)

Kenneth “Rey” Reyes, a fourth-year civil engineering student from Plainfield, New Jersey, worked on one end of the wooden mold constructed from three-quarter-inch finished plywood panels cut to hold wood sheets as thick as two postcards and covered with plastic sheeting. 

Once the students unbolted the frame, they separated it into two long halves and gently lowered The Row-Tunda – 16 feet long, 29½ inches wide and weighing 300 pounds – onto plastic-covered foam pads. 

Then, students removed the black plastic sheeting that lined it, reassembled the mold, re-lined it with bubble wrap and prepared the canoe for its journey to Blacksburg. 

Madison Cannon, a fourth-year civil engineering major from Yorktown, was the mix design co-captain for the capstone team. 

“It throws you in and you learn so much so quickly,” Cannon said. “You go through so many iterations of a concrete mix design before you decide which is the most sustainable, strongest, lightest and economically viable mix that you can do. It seemed like a fantastic, hands-on learning opportunity where I could have the chance to eventually present and create a technical proposal for this canoe.”

Students rowing the concrete boat
A Team members Matthew Taylor, left. and Leon Crawford paddle the Row-Tunda during the racing portion of the competition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, UVA Engineering)

Cannon said she knew little about working with concrete when she started.

“I knew what the classes had taught me about concrete strength and the like,” Cannon said. “But I didn’t know how to mix concrete, the different aspects of the admixtures versus the aggregates, and which aggregates are better than these aggregates and how they’re more sustainable. Surprisingly, there’s more to cement than just cement; there’s multiple types of cement.”

The dark-grey Row-Tunda, built with a combination of blast furnace slag, a by-product of iron ore refining, and Portland Lime Cement is “greener” than its predecessors. 

Jason Wong, co-captain and a fourth-year civil engineering major from Gainesville, said the production of ordinary cement adds to greenhouse gases. 

Crowd cheering
Concrete canoe team members, from left, Anna Nelson, Connor McKenzie, Surya Reddy, Melody Cao, Claire Sharp and Kenneth Reyes cheer on their entry. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, UVA Engineering)

“Portland cement is a massive CO2 producer due to the energy-intensive process of producing clinkers by heating the kiln that makes cement,” Wong said. “The creation of cement is the single largest industrial source of greenhouse gases, accounting for around 8% of global emissions.”

Will it Float?

The constant question is, “Will it float?” The canoe includes hollow sections fore and aft to hold air and give it buoyancy. Under competition rules, when pushed underwater it is required to rise back up.

“The buoyancy of a concrete canoe, like any other buoyant object, is primarily determined by its density relative to the fluid it displaces – in this case, water. Being less dense will allow the canoe to carry a larger payload,” Wong said.

Crawford, a fourth-year civil engineering major, said he was anxious to join the concrete canoe team last year when it restarted after the pandemic. 

“I found that it was just a great way for me to apply what I was learning that year and the year before with my classes,” he said. “I’ve always been a competitor. I’ve been in sports throughout high school. I joined this because it’s a mix of what I’m learning with that competitive drive.”

Filling the concrete boat with water
Team members pour water into the concrete canoe to test its buoyancy. From left are Drake Wohrle, Jason Wong, Annie Seltzer, Giselle Alas and Jimmy Sejas. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, UVA Engineering)

Ryan Henry, a laboratory manager at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and technical adviser for the team, said last year’s competition was the first the team had participated in for many years. That team finished second out of nine schools. The enthusiasm from that finish carried forward to September, when the concrete canoe team held its first interest meeting of the year and 50 students showed up.

“We were no longer building a canoe; we were building a program,” Henry said.

A program that brought Cannon experience with concrete and working with others.

“I learned a lot of interpersonal techniques, especially when on such a large-scale team and handling two teams at the same time,” she said. “I’m surprisingly more willing to take up leadership roles than I had originally thought. I don’t mind being in charge of things.”

Crawford, who was impressed by the team’s resiliency, also learned more than concrete fabrication.

“I’ve confirmed that I thrive in team environments,” he said. “I’ve had to trust in my team more to make sure that the boat is done right. I’ve learned more about what it means to be a part of a team and the benefits of it.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications