Defending champs: California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo won first place for the second year running, with dedication and crushed toilets.
ASCE Defending champs: California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo won first place for the second year running, with dedication and crushed toilets.

David Lewis, P.E., was glad he answered the call to judge the American Society of Civil Engineers' National Concrete Canoe Competition last year. As a bridge engineer for the County of Santa Barbara, Calif., Lewis served as a local expert when the contest was held at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO).

The experience gave Lewis a unique glimpse into the program, which challenges students to put their knowledge and creativity to practical use, and tests their project management skills. "The competition has given me great confidence in up-and-coming engineers," he says.

He decided to do it again.

Along with students from 24 engineering programs, Lewis traveled to the University of Evansville in Indiana for this year's competition. Students spent two intense days setting up, displaying their canoes, and making academic presentations. Then had to wait a few more hours, for morning thunderstorms to pass, before they could finally race at John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Ky.

Cal Poly SLO's "Cetacea" weighed 208 lbs. and was reinforced with aircraft cable encased in a Teflon sheath. The team met its sustainable aggregate requirements (at least two sustainable materials, each accounting for 25% of the concrete's aggregate content) in an innovative way, after one teammate's "inspirational trip to the restroom": 600 lbs. of ground porcelain from crushed toilets.

To prevent surface defects, the students removed the canoe from its mold with pressurized air. Finally, they decorated it with more than 30 design elements including decals, inlays, and environmentally friendly silicate mineral stain.

University of Wisconsin-Madison placed second with "Element," a 191-lb. canoe made of integrally colored concrete reinforced with fiberglass mesh and recycled cellulose magazine fibers. Université Laval of Quebec, Canada, came in third. "Voltage" weighed 103 lbs. with a 1/4-in. hull made of lightweight shotcrete supported by carbon fiber mesh.

The final projects were judged in four parts of equal weight: a design paper, oral presentation, final product, and the canoe's performance in five different races. The top three teams took home a total of $9,000 in scholarship money for their respective civil engineering programs.

Each year, the teams spend hundreds of hours working on their canoes. If they win one of 18 regional competitions, they qualify for the national event. The competition continues to grow, with two new competitors - Utah State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato - joining the pack this year.

The University of Nevada in Reno hosts next year for the competition's 25th anniversary. Lewis encourages all public works managers to get involved, to meet and support some of the best and brightest young engineers.

To volunteer as a judge for a conference competition, contact ASCE Student Services at

For more information, visit

Videos: University of Wisconsin - Madison Concrete Canoe Animations
University of Wisconsin - Madison's team created a digital animation to show how its canoe "Element" was built, layer by layer. Videos: University of Wisconsin - Madison

Mold construction process: A prototype canoe was made by attaching plywood cross sections to a strongback and covering it with marine-grade plywood. Plaster-soaked burlap sheets covered the prototype to form the mold. Last, the mold was flipped and the prototype was removed.

Construction process: Element is made of three layers of concrete (blue, 'uncolored', and black), two layers of fiberglass mesh, and six steel prestress cables running the length of the canoe. The animation shows the order of each layer/reinforcement piece.