The idea of a concrete boat building competition may seem ridiculous. After all, if you heave a block of concrete into water, it will sink. Even I know that, and I don’t even have a physics O level.
But universities around the world have turned the art of concrete canoe making into a big money-spinning contest and hundreds of students vie for prizes in a tightly fought competition every year.
It’s not as daft as it sounds. Yes, you can build it with really heavy concrete of the type that will be used on motorway bridges and it will (always) sink when thrown into water. But you can get light concrete too. Really light.
Kevin Gagnon, of Laval University, which has won the Canadian national competition several times, says the contest isn’t just about building the boat – though obviously that’s a prerequisite. Training the crew to win the race is important too because – as pictured – you’ve got to beat other boats in head-to-head races.
“Concrete has a way of surprising you. You can do really, really heavy concrete that’s really strong and you can do really light concrete that’s not that strong. And you can do a really light one that can withstand four paddlers in a boat,” says Gagnon.
Under the terms of the competition, students must deisgn and build a canoe out of concrete. It has to float and they have to take part in two races: one endurance and one sprint.
The idea, like many of these things, sounds like it originated in a pub after a few too many beers. But from its origins in the 1960s, the concrete canoe building competition has taken root in universities worldwide.
The academic principles behind the competition are robust: it’s intended to give students a practical application of some engineering principles taught in the lecture theatre – plus some team- and project-management skills which will come in handy later. (Think “The Apprentice” merged with “University Challenge” and “The Krypton Factor” and you may have a general idea what this is all about).
Gagnon adds: “It’s not all about engineering. First you have to develop the concrete mix that will float for the canoe. And then you have to train to paddle…with the canoe that you built during the year.”
Prizes go up to many thousands of dollars’ worth of scholarships so it’s all very competitive. According to one magazine, many competitors have parents who themselves took part in these concrete boat building competitions back in the 1960s and 1970s….(I guess that would make them chips off the old block? Ed.)
Full details can be found here. And a link to one concrete canoe race (the paddlers don’t look like they’ll threaten anyone for Olympic selection, that’s for sure, but it’s serious stuff just the same).
And the concrete canoe magazine – yes, there really is such a title, is here.
Plus there’s the inevitable video on Youtube: