Concrete Canoe: The math says it floats

Glory Reitz – Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Justin Vander Werff

Luke Vander Horst, a junior civil engineering major, has participated in the Concrete Canoe Club since his freshman year, but he hasn’t put a concrete canoe in the water, though not for lack of trying.

On April 21, nine engineering students loaded a concrete canoe onto a trailer and drove to Iowa State University to pit their flotation device against other schools in the region. On the night before the race, though, Ames Fire and Rescue authorities decided 25 mile per hour winds and 1-foot waves created conditions too dangerous for canoeing.

The Concrete Canoe club is an extension of Dordt University’s American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) chapter. Each year, the club takes their canoe to a regional competition, where they are judged on five criteria: technical presentation, aesthetics, a poster, a race, and a 30-plus page technical report on the canoe.

Overall, Dordt’s club finished 8 out of 10 overall and won second place in the enhanced focus category. Vander Horst, the club’s president, felt the canoe, if allowed into the water, would have raced well.

Since August, the club met every Saturday morning, testing types of concrete mixes and structures for the construction of the canoe. 

Photo Credit: Luke Vander Horst

The majority of the club’s meetings were attended by Vander Horst and freshmen Conner Asche and Noah Swenson. Though they possessed a mold from previous competitions, they were inexperienced in the club. 

During 2020, Vander Horst’s freshman year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the competition. Last year, organizers held the competition online. Vander Horst says he loves the experience, though, despite its multiple delays.

“You get to go and race concrete boats,” Vander Horst said. “But there’s also, what are we here to do? We’re here to serve. We’re also here to have fun, and… I think that going out and fixing concrete is enjoyable.”

The Concrete Canoe club, given its relation to ASCE, is open to all engineering students, not just civil engineers. 

Asche’s emphasis is in computer engineering, and Swenson is studying mechanical engineering. Yet, both showed up on Saturday mornings to work on mix design, finding the right combination of specialty aggregates to create a strong, light concrete.

The club mixed plastic and glass aggregates into their concrete, rather than sand and river rock, given their lightness. Also, they used a pretensioning technique, reinforcing the canoe by running cables through the wet, not-yet-cured concrete. According to Vander Horst, only Dordt’s club uses the technique. Vander Horst and his clubmates also used white Portland cement, enabling them to dye their canoe.

While the competition doesn’t allow for painted canoes, teams may add pigment to the concrete mix. This year, following a tradition of nods to Dordt’s culture, the canoe was dyed yellow and green, modeled after its namesake: the “Corncob.”

“Since corn outnumbers people about a thousand to one out here, we figured it was a pretty good way to enjoy being Northwest Iowans,” Vander Horst said.

On “pour day,” around 30 club members attended the Saturday morning meeting in the crowded, retired agriculture lab to mix concrete and mold it around a wooden frame. 

Photo Credit: Justin Vander Werff

Regardless of the overabundance of workers, pour day took five hours to complete, as the club mixed the concrete that morning. For Asche, pour day’s hands-on, teamwork-oriented experience was his favorite.

In recent years, enrollment in Dordt’s civil engineering program has dropped. While the university typically graduates 10 to 15 students a year, according to club faculty advisor Justin Vander Werff, the program will see just three walk the stage of the B.J. Haan Auditorium next week.

At the competition, nine students attended, planning to help paddle in the races. Though they were not able to float the canoe, Vander Werff believes the experience got enough freshmen and sophomores interested in participating more next year.

Ashayla Soodsma, a sophomore civil engineering major, said softball practices made it difficult for her to attend many of this year’s meetings, but she hopes to be a more active club member next year. When she was able to participate this year, she enjoyed the community, involvement, and hands-on aspects of the club.

“The competition was definitely eye-opening,” she said, “and I can’t wait to do it again in the future.”

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