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Canoe Sinks but Student Dreams Soar (Part 4)

Canoe Sinks but Student Dreams Soar (Part 4)

Perfect hosts! Their canoe came apart, but the Illinois Tech team hung together to put on a great event.

Perfect hosts! Their canoe came apart, but the Illinois Tech team hung together to put on a great event.

  • It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you host the games!

Earlier this month, BW launched a blog series following a team of Illinois Tech engineering students as they prepared for the regional finals of the National Concrete Canoe Competition. Sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the popular international event asks college students to build and race a two-person canoe made from concrete. This year, Illinois Tech hosted the Midwest races on April 15. To read the rest of the series, click here

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by AARON GRUDOWSKIStudent/Co-captain, Illinois Tech | Fourth in a series |April 22, 2016

It was finally here… after months of planning and constructing our concrete canoe, the day had come to see if our canoe would actually float. When the clock struck 4 am, we were off to this year's race site, the Washington Park lagoon, south of the Illinois Tech campus, just west of the University of Chicago. Upon our arrival, set-up began. As the event hosts, we had the additional duties to first put up the speakers, then the breakfast tables, the buoys... and finally, our own decorative canoe stand, and the boat, itself. 

Soon, our competitors began to arrive to set up their own camps... UIC, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Evansville… “Wow guys, I actually think we have one of the nicest looking canoes this year. We might even…” and then there was the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As usual, their canoe was absolutely flawless. The colors flowed into each other seamlessly and the concrete was so smooth, it felt like plastic. And it was as solid as a rock. Nothing was going to stop them.  

"A good day to race": Great weather and 19 teams from across the Midwest all came together on April 15.

"A good day to race": Great weather and 19 teams from across the Midwest all came together on April 15.

Then it was time for "swamp tests". One by one, teams went down to the lagoons and filled up their canoes with water to ensure that once totally full, they did not sink. (If they did, the teams would have to make last-minute adjustments before they could race). Then, it was our turn. 

“One, two, three... lift!” We hoisted our canoe effortlessly onto our shoulders and carried over to the lake. Then, gently, we set it down into the water. Then, we... let... go... and…. It floated!! 

Nailed it! The Illinois Tech team canoe easily won the Swamp Test. No one had more trouble sinking their boat.

Nailed it! The Illinois Tech team canoe easily won the Swamp Test. No one had more trouble sinking their boat.

A few of us jumped in and grabbed buckets. As our feet became numb from the freezing water, we filled up our canoe one bucket at a time. And then we realized something… our canoe floated too well! Even when it was completely filled with water, it was so buoyant that almost half of it remained above water.   

“Just push it under, and you’re good,” one of the judges yelled.   So we huffed, and we puffed, and we pushed our canoe… but it just wouldn’t go under.  Finally, the judges told us we had passed the test, and for that moment, everything was going well.  

And then that moment ended. 

“Um, Rafal, where did this crack come from?!?!”

“Man, there are a lot of cracks in it now.” 

After a moment, we realized that it must have been from the swamp test. We had been pushing so hard on it, that the entire bottom of the canoe was now full of cracks, as well as the right side.  It was not looking good.

Flash forward an hour, and it is time for Rafal and I to set sail. When we climbed into the boat and are getting into position when Rafal suddenly yells, “The boat’s sinking”  I look up, and sure enough, the front half of the canoe is filling up with water.  As I hear our teammate Anna tell us to wait just a few more minutes, I feel water touch my skin, and then… the right wall caves in.  Water starts pouring into the canoe, and I know we are going down.  

"Uh oh, that's not good..." Aaron (left) and Rafal begin to contemplate their lifesaving skills and the life aquatic.

"Uh oh, that's not good..." Aaron (left) and Rafal begin to contemplate their lifesaving skills and the life aquatic.

Cue the Titanic theme: “Don’t let go Jack! Hold me Jack!” “I won’t let go!”  

I moved up and grabbed Rafal, and we plunged into the water. When we looked up, we could see that our canoe had broken into several pieces. Our race was officially over. By the time we dragged it on shore, it had completely flattened and shattered into several dozen pieces. We no longer had a concrete canoe; we now had a soggy, concrete pancake, and it was crumbling.

So-o-o... in the end, we didn’t get to race. Disappointing? Sure. 

But instead of getting upset, we decided to just have fun as we lost our canoe, which had been the primary focus of our academic lives for months. And we got our “wish.” Granted, our captains (Rafal and yours truly) went down with our ship, of course. But in all seriousness, we learned a whole LOT from this experience. 

Between our own mistakes, helpful tips we got from other teams, plus all the other things we picked up along the way... we know now that we are ready for next year. In fact, our planning for the 2017 race has already begun. Of course, we will once again attempt to take down UW-Madison, who took first place again this year. But until then, we will enjoy the fun times we had building, and sinking, our canoe. Because in all honesty, although it wasn’t totally successful, we all agreed afterward that we wouldn’t have been happier with the results any other way. 

On to nationals! Not only did the UW-Madison crew have the best boat. They seemed to have practiced a lot, too. 

On to nationals! Not only did the UW-Madison crew have the best boat. They seemed to have practiced a lot, too. 

Now swimming through his third year at Illinois Tech, the author is a civil engineering major. Grudowski says he is looking forward to studying more about the properties of concrete next fall.

To see all the GLSC race results, technical papers, and sponsors, click here.

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