Forty Years of Concrete Canoe
Above, the first concrete canoe team, pictured on the lawn of Newmark Lab in 1971.
What began 40 years ago as a civil engineering class project at the University of Illinois has now grown into an organized annual tradition for engineering students worldwide. A look at this singular learning experience.
By Armen Amirkhanian
Concrete is used for sidewalks, highways, bridges, and skyscrapers. It is an excellent construction product in terms of durability and strength. So why, every year, do thousands of students across the nation and around the world decide to take such a useful material and construct a seemingly useless structure like a concrete canoe?
Surprisingly, the idea of using concrete to construct watercraft has been around for more than 100 years. During the 19th century, a watercraft was made out of concrete for a zoo display in Amsterdam. During WWII, cargo vessels were constructed out of concrete due to the shortage of steel.
Nearly 25 years after the end of WWII, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign named Clyde E. Kesler (BS 43, MS 46) had an inspiration. Instead of giving his students in the concrete design class the usual term project of designing high-strength cylinders or reinforced beams, he challenged them to build a canoe out of concrete. One can only imagine his students’ reactions. Surely, some thought about dropping the class, hoping for a less demanding professor the next term. But those who stayed were about to make history—and hopefully a good grade in the class.
By the end of 1970, the first modern concrete canoe had been constructed. It vaguely resembled a canoe, weighed 370 pounds, and was appropriately named Mis-Led. Purdue heard about the project and, naturally, challenged Illinois to a race. On May 16, 1971, the first inter-collegiate concrete canoe race in the world took place. That morning, Kesler’s eager students arrived at Kickapoo State Park in Oakwood, Ill., and began unloading their 370-pound concrete beast. Purdue arrived shortly after and began unloading their canoe, a 125-pound watercraft that actually looked like a canoe. The Fighting Illini knew they would have a tough battle ahead of them. There were only to be five races. Reminiscent of a Hollywood movie, the two teams started the fifth and final race tied 2-2. It would all come down to this last race. The starting horn sounded, and the two teams were off, racing for the World Championship! Purdue gained an early lead; however, this would not last. It wasn’t the strength, prowess, and skill of the Illini paddlers that allowed them to overtake Purdue. No, it was the fact that Purdue capsized! Much to the dismay of the Purdue team, the Fighting Illini lumbered across the finish line, claiming the title of World Champion. Both teams were awarded trophies, however Purdue’s trophy was a concrete lifesaver, lest they decide to capsize again.
Above, the Illinois concrete canoe team accepts the first-place trophy and the title of 1971 World Champions!
Below, the Purdue team gracefully accepts the second place award, a concrete life preserver.
This would be only the start of what would grow into a worldwide competition. The idea caught on, and year after year, more and more teams competed in various races throughout the country. However, all of these competitions were organized independently of one another. The American Concrete Institute, with input from another University of Illinois professor, Francis J. Young, attempted to draw up a set of rules to organize the competitions. Nevertheless, it was not until 1987 that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) formed a committee to organize the competition nationally, under the direction of Professor R. John Craig from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In 1988, the first National Concrete Canoe Competition was held in East Lansing, Mich. In 1989, ASCE established a permanent subcommittee to ensure the execution of the annual concrete canoe competition.
Every year since then, thousands of students at hundreds of universities across the nation have challenged themselves to build and race concrete canoes. The nine-month project takes extraordinary engineering ability and dedication to complete. Students who call themselves “concrete canoers” are a special breed. They are ready to devote thousands of hours to complete a project that gives them no class credit, no cash prizes, and no fame. They do it because of the challenge, the camaraderie, and the sheer excitement of watching a canoe, made of concrete, compete against the top teams in the nation.
With the 40th anniversary approaching, it is hard to believe that a class project from the University of Illinois has become, and still remains, a worldwide competition. Certainly, Clyde Kesler and his colleague Francis J. Young had no idea of what would become of the competition. On the 10th anniversary of the competition, Young wrote, “Now in 1981, it is intriguing to look back at Illinois’ participation in concrete canoe racing before it becomes merged into legend or lost irretrievably in the gathering dust of forgotten files.”
As a concrete canoer for more than 15 years, I am glad to say that Illinois’ participation has become merged into legend and has no sign of gathering dust. I believe I echo the words of all concrete canoers when I say that I would not be the engineer I am today without concrete canoe. Thank you, Clyde Kesler, for challenging your students to push the limits of their imagination while having fun in the process. I can only hope that the next 40 years will be as exciting as the past 40 years.
CEE graduate student Armen Amirkhanian has been involved with concrete canoe ever since he could walk; his father was the faculty adviser for the team at Clemson University. Armen is an adviser for the Illinois concrete canoe team, the Boneyard Yacht Club. He received a B.S. in Materials Science Engineering with a minor in Chemistry from Clemson and is currently studying at Illinois under Associate Professor Jeffery Roesler.
For more information, including archived pictures and documents, go to www.concretecanoepictures.com and visit the History section. For more information about the current progress of the Illinois team, the Boneyard Yacht Club, please email Armen Amirkhanian or visit the Boneyard Yacht Club website.