With Canoes of Concrete, Engineers at City College Paddle Merrily Onward

June 16, 2014 | The University

By COREY KILGANNON

June 20, 2014

It might sound like an idea that would go over like the proverbial lead balloon, but in September, a group of engineering students at City College of New York began meeting and devising a way to build a concrete canoe.

“When I heard that, my response was like: ‘What? A boat made of concrete?’ ” said Dr. Friso Postma, an expert paddler from Brooklyn, who had not heard of such a thing until he was asked to coach the team this spring, once the canoe was finished.

Team members reassured him that while they were building the canoe over the winter, in a workshop at City College, they had made certain that the vessel would float.

After all, they told Mr. Postma, the primary rule in concrete canoe competitions — yes, there are such events — is paddling a boat that does not sink.

They also told him that concrete canoeing has a rich tradition among civil engineers, and at City College, whose teams go back to at least the 1970s.

“It’s a huge thing within the civil engineering program,” said Juan-Carlos Quintana, 29, a team member. “We take it very seriously.”

While the team members are all engineering students, most were non-athletes, with little or no canoeing experience until Mr. Postma — a neurobiologist and a veteran competitive rower — whipped them into shape over several practice sessions. By late April they paddled their canoe to victory in a regional tournament in New Jersey, thus qualifying for the national championships this weekend at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, Pa.

After the regionals, the team put the canoe on display in the lobby of the engineering building in Harlem.

“We have a lot of support and a lot of pride in the school,” said Esther Dornhelm, 22, a team member who said that techniques were passed down from one year to the next by returning team members.

“It’s very nerdy,” she said of the concrete canoe team. “The best part of going to the competitions is that it’s a total nerd convention.”

The activity tests design and construction skills outside the classroom; the students build their canoe using only concrete and reinforcing materials.

Over the winter the students experimented with small batches of concrete, hoping to build a boat that would be strong enough to float with four rowers onboard yet light enough to be competitive. Faulty concrete mixtures can result in cracked canoes.

The finished canoe is given a waterproof finish and a spiffy paint job reflecting the theme chosen by this year’s team.

The team chose the Goethals for its name, after George Washington Goethals, a City College graduate, Army officer and civil engineer known for his work on the Panama Canal. The boat bears designs adapted from the Gothic architecture on the City College campus.

“Once we’re synchronized and have the right technique, this thing flies,” Jorge Yepez, 23, the team president, said as he patted the canoe in the shop.

The team relied on donations from groups such as the Civil Service Technical Guild Local 375, which represents city scientific and engineering workers, many of whom work for the Department of Design and Construction. But the team could not raise the $1,700 to buy a new mold to craft its own canoe design. They used an existing mold, one City College teams have relied on for the past four years.

This is one reason the Goethals’ boat weighs nearly 350 pounds, more than double that of the lightest boats competing in the nationals. It takes about 10 people to carry it. (About two dozen teams will participate in the national competitions.)

For buoyancy, the students installed foam at either end, so the canoe could pass the required “slump test” at the races; each canoe is swamped — filled entirely with water — to show that it can still float.

Last year, the team practiced on the East River, and at one point ran a previous year’s concrete canoe onto the rocks in Hallets Cove in Astoria, Queens, gouging a hole and ruining it.

This spring, the Sebago Canoe Club in Canarsie, Brooklyn, allowed the team to practice in Paerdegat Basin.

Last Saturday, team members paddled a concrete canoe around the buoys in the basin, with Dan Olson, chairman of Sebago’s canoe committee, in a conventional canoe nearby.

Mr. Postma drilled the rowers, synchronizing their strokes, honing their starting line strategy and strengthening their oar technique.

The concrete canoe stayed afloat, but team members training in a more conventional fiberglass canoe tipped over, sending four members into the water.

The national competition consists of a series of heats in various categories, but racing is only a fraction of the competition. The teams also give oral and written presentations on their canoes and have the vessels evaluated.

Just as important is getting the canoe to the tournament intact. The team plans on renting a box truck and packing the canoe in a long plywood rack team members have designed.

City College’s 2007 team cracked its canoe en route to the national competition. Mr. Quintana said he plans on driving the truck “as slowly as possible.”

Originally published by The New York Times