Row, row, row your concrete: BYU hosts concrete canoe championships

College students from across the country compete in the ASCE Civil Engineering Student Championships at Utah Lake on Friday. The event included concrete canoe races.

College students from across the country compete in the ASCE Civil Engineering Student Championships at Utah Lake on Friday. The event included concrete canoe races. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)


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PROVO — A handful of concrete canoes pushed out into Utah Lake's shallow, turquoise waters on Friday, somewhat clumsily weaving through buoys amid cheers and the clang of cowbells on the lakeshore.

It was a warm, sunny day, and hundreds of students huddled under canopies to sweat it out in the shade, filled with a palpable mix of elation and dread as they awaited their turn to paddle in the 37th Annual American Society of Civil Engineers student concrete canoe championships.

"They really have to do this. I cry when I think about it," said Maria Lehman, the engineering society's acting presidential officer at the competition.

The championship brings together 25 universities to race concrete canoes designed and made by civil engineering students. The event is less an evidence of athletic prowess — recruiting athletes to paddle the canoes is banned — and more a showcase of engineering know-how.

Student teams create their own concrete mix and build styrofoam molds. Obviously, the overarching goal is for the canoe to float — easier said than done, when working with concrete.

Canoe races are filled with drama. The boats are difficult to balance, and it's not unusual to see them sink. A few years ago, one canoe broke in half right as it crossed the finish line, engineering society member Jess Hilscher said.

At a race in Buffalo, New York, one team had to swim their sunken canoe to shore, where they were met with cheering friends and towels, Lehman remembers.

The race is known as "America's Cup of Civil Engineering." If you can make it across the finish line at all, you're no slouch.

University of Laval team members cheer as college students from across the country compete in the ASCE Civil Engineering Student Championships at Utah Lake, including concrete canoe races on Friday.
University of Laval team members cheer as college students from across the country compete in the ASCE Civil Engineering Student Championships at Utah Lake, including concrete canoe races on Friday. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

This year, Brigham Young University hosted the event. It was a massive endeavor, especially considering it was entirely organized by student volunteers.

Civil engineering graduate student Taylor Miskin said putting the event together was like running a small business. The BYU chapter of the engineering society fundraised enough to put on the event.

The event has helped BYU earn some positive recognition, Miskin said, and it's a great opportunity to share the school's values and promote its graduate degree programs.

"It's one of those things where you look back on it and think it was a lot of work, but I grew exponentially," he said of organizing the competition.

Another plus of hosting was that BYU's own concrete canoe team was automatically admitted into the very competitive championship.

"It's been cool to be here and represent our school," said Justin Booher, a member of the BYU team. BYU hasn't made it to the national championship since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's hard to pass on the knowledge if everyone graduates," Booher said.

Each of the teams competes in slalom and sprint races, with one of each for women, men and co-ed paddlers. The team to watch? California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Lehman said.

Cal Poly has taken home first place seven times in the last 20 years, and when they don't finish first they usually place in the Top 5.

Ella Froning and teammate Elli Hollenbeck, South Dakota College Mines, battle toward the finish in their concrete canoe as they and other students from across the country compete in the ASCE Civil Engineering Student Championships at Utah Lake on Friday.
Ella Froning and teammate Elli Hollenbeck, South Dakota College Mines, battle toward the finish in their concrete canoe as they and other students from across the country compete in the ASCE Civil Engineering Student Championships at Utah Lake on Friday. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The California school doesn't mess around — the team starts preparing over the summer. Cal Poly's student project manager, Sarah Sakakihara, says when the competition rules come out in September, they get right to work.

It helps that seniors who work on the 11-person team get some class credit for the project. The team averaged 18 hours of work on the canoe each week, Sakakihara said.

"We spend so much time together, and we can sometimes get frustrated with each other, but at the end of the day, we're all working together toward the same goal," she said.

This teamwork is what makes the competition so great, Lehman said. Some think of engineers as people who sit in cubicles and crunch numbers all day. That's one way to do it, but working together is where real solutions come from, she said. Plus, artificial intelligence will most likely make those solitary numbers jobs obsolete in a few years, anyway.

The competition has emphasized the business side of engineering in recent years, requiring teams to raise their own money for the project, write an 18-page summary report, market their canoe and network.

"From a project management point, it's taught me a lot about how to plan a project, how to see it through and how to adjust if things go wrong," Booher said.

It matters that students get these skills. Lehman sees civil engineering as a way to solve big social problems, especially related to sustainability. To make a difference, engineers need to plan and pitch projects to public officials.

"We have the power to solve these problems, you just need to let us go and bring more K-12 kids into the pipeline," she said.

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Emma Everett Johnson covers Utah as a general news reporter. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University.

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