Engineering students construct canoe of concrete

Harrison Burns—Staff Writer

It’s a brisk April morning at a Midwest lake. Grey sky. Hovering mist. Cold, cold water. Four college students push a fifteen-foot canoe into the silver liquid, two of them leaping onboard with long paddles.

But this is not an ordinary canoe. This canoe is made completely out of concrete.

After two semesters of preparation, the canoe is about to be tested against twelve other concrete canoes, built by engineering departments in the region, in an annual race. Here, in Iowa City, is where juniors Janneke DeBoer and Brendan Bunker will be in April to represent Dordt College with the canoe they began working on in the Fall Semester.

The Concrete Canoe competition is a nationwide, college-level event organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The competition offers a simple but difficult challenge—build a canoe out of concrete that can not only float but also race.

Dordt’s team is led under the supervision of Professor Justin Vander Werff, who continues the tradition of Dordt’s participation in the event. Vander Werff worked with DeBoer and Bunker at the beginning of the process, helping them plan the necessary steps to ensure not only that the canoe would be completed by the competition’s due date, but also that they adhered to the event’s many guidelines.

“Kind of reflective of real life, there are a lot of intricacies involved, not only building the actual [canoe] but the various paperwork, the various design criteria that needs to be met… and documenting it all,” DeBoer said.

This precise work is illustrated in the ASCE’s “Rules and Regulations”, a 94-page document detailing the many protocols required for a college’s participation. The Dordt team spent much of the fall semester preparing for these procedures of recording data for dozens of forms that they will eventually compile and present.

“It is a lot easier to do something and forget about it, instead of doing it and then explain not only what you did but why afterwards,” DeBoer said.

The team also spent the first months finding vendors for materials they needed. As many of the materials are only sold in industrial sized bulks, finding the right amounts within the engineering department’s budget can be a challenge.

After the initial preparation stage, DeBoer and Bunker began independently working on the project without Vander Werff’s direct supervision.  Taking time out of their already busy schedules, the two of them work 3-4 hours on Saturdays, and often meet during the week to discuss the future steps.

Concrete Canoe PC Harrison Burns

Photo by Harrison Burns

For Bunker, if he is not organizing files or preparing paperwork, his typical routine consists of testing, creating, and perfecting different mixes before the final concrete mix will be poured at the end of February.

After snapping on blue latex gloves and a white facemask that smells of musky clothes, Bunker pulls out a large bucket and begins mixing in the many ingredients.  He follows notes on the whiteboard that describe the specific amount needed for each material.

The mix is very different from the standard concrete used in sidewalks.  Because the goal is create concrete that can float, Bunker adds a variety of lightweight additives.  This includes super-light fibers called Micro-Balloons that float into the air after being poured, similar to powdered sugar.  These airborne particles are why Bunker breathes through his mask, as they are easy to damage the lungs.

Being creative with the [concrete] mix has been one of Bunkers’s favorite parts working with Concrete Canoe.

The months of planning and work are about to pay off for the Dordt team, with the final pour date scheduled at the end of February.

The mold for the canoe is already complete and looks like the skin of a great white shark.  It is covered with a web of tension strings, metal coils that help create a stable structure for the concrete to dry over.

The actual canoe will be covered in three different layers of concrete mixes and will require over six people to lift it. The team has decided to name the canoe “Genesis.” After the pour day, Genesis will dry for six weeks, before finally being put to the test.

“We’ll roll out the concrete and see if it floats. The moment of truth.” Bunker said. A moment the team is confidently anticipating.

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