“It’s not the usual concrete you would see out in the construction field, or used to for a driveway.” Zachari Ryan (right) displays the buoyant, light and strong concrete used by ODU civil engineering student to build a canoe for the American Society of Civil Engineers Concrete Canoe competition. His teammate Colin Davies is on the left. Courtesy photo.

Foreword & questions by John Streit. Answers by Zachari Ryan

One recent afternoon, the shop phone rang and on the other end was Old Dominion University student Zachari Ryan, who introduced himself as a civil engineering student and captain of the school’s concrete canoe team.

Wait, what? A canoe made of concrete?

Unfamiliar with the existence of such watercraft, Zachari went on to explain the details of the competition, hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Immediately, I knew that Surf & Adventure Co. and this effort from ODU students would make an awesome team. While engineering concrete that’s very strong and buoyant is outside of our expertise, paddling in canoes (as well as kayaks and standup paddleboards) is one of our strengths.

We’re proud to offer the ODU Concrete Canoe Team our support as they prepare for the ASCE’s 2014 competition, which will pit the Monarchs against the country’s best engineering schools. Stay tuned to this website, http://facebook.com/surfandadventure and @surf_adventure_co on Instagram for more news on the team as they work to bring another championship home to southeastern Virginia!

Check out the following Q&A session we recently had with Zachari for more insight into this unique watersports engineering challenge.


A competition-ready concrete canoe from a past ASCE national championship. ODU’s task is to engineer a similar vessel to compete in the 2014 competition. Photo: http://asce.org

S&A: “Concrete” and “canoe” aren’t necessarily words that many people associate together; so it’s pretty unique that this competition exists. Tell us more about the origins of this collegiate challenge and what inspired ODU to take part.

Zachari: This competition has been around for over 40 years, and ODU has a handful of trophies as old as the mid- 70s. The unique challenge presented by building a canoe made of concrete is the primary reason for the competition.  It tests our knowledge not only of material science, but of engineering and abstract problem solving that is not a part of the standard academic curriculum. ODU has not put a successful canoe in this competition in about six years. We feel that entering a successful canoe in this competition will help ODU put its engineering stamp on the map.

S&A: What do you believe is the most efficient way to build one of these canoes?

ZR: The idea is to conduct preliminary research and design several theoretical concrete mix designs. These sample designs should be lightweight and durable. These theoretical samples should then be mixed and tested under tension and compression. Then we use process of elimination to choose our best product. While the mix designs are curing, our male mold form should be constructed and prepared for the concrete application. In the meantime we will need to find a space big enough for the construction of the canoe itself. Once all of this is squared away; we can apply concrete to the form, allow curing for a minimum of one month in a climate-controlled environment. We then remove the concrete canoe from the form, sand, paint, and take it for a spin. With proper reinforcement and the right mix combined with our buoyancy factors, our canoe should perform well enough to compete!

S&A: How well do these canoes perform in the water compared to a fiberglass or molded plastic canoe?

ZR: The majority do not perform as well, however they are not terrible. These canoes are generally much heavier, so they’re more sluggish in the water than the typical fiberglass canoes that are out on the market. The roughness and abnormalities in the hull can also have a negative impact on performance. With that said, there have been some concrete canoes created that perform just as well, if not better, as a standard fiberglass canoe.

S&A: What are the unique characteristics of the concrete used to build the canoe?

ZR: It’s not the usual concrete you would see out in the construction field, or used to for a driveway. It’s more like grout than what most people would think.  Rather than using graded sands and pebbles as the aggregate, lightweight materials are used. An example of one of our lightweight materials include tiny glass bubbles known as micro-balloons. Micro-balloons are sometimes used in fishing lures for buoyancy (as well as fiberglass resin used in surfboard manufacturing – S&A).  The typical unit weight of concrete is roughly 150 pounds per cubic foot (PCF). The unit weight we are aiming for with our design is in between the 60-70 PCF range. The reasoning for this specific range is that the unit weight of water itself is 62.4 PCF. As long as we are in range with water and have the right buoyancy factors due to displacement, our canoe should float on water.


Here’s the ODU-engineered floating concrete, doing what it does best in the waters of Back Bay behind Surf & Adventure Co. Photo: Zachari Ryan.

S&A: Describe the format of the ASCE competition.

ZR: The competition starts with a visual display showing off the boat, our technical reports, and posters. Then, the canoes are taken to the water were they get submerged with water.  If a canoe does not return to the surface of the water, it fails and is disqualified due to safety reasons. After the submergence test, all the fun begins with the races! The races are conducted by a pair of men, a pair of women, and a team of 2 men and 2 women.  This includes straight-line sprints and navigation exercises. The following day, the teams present their designs and technical data to a panel of judges from the Virginia engineering community. 

S&A: Do you believe ODU has the ability to compete for a championship with the established schools in the competition?

ZR: Although ODU has not participated in this event in close to six years, we do have a history in the event and are one of the original members of the conference putting on the competition. We are also located in one of the largest engineering communities in the region. I believe that with the community’s support, the right dedication, and our team’s ingenuity combined with last year’s experience, we will be able to produce a competitive product in 2014.

S&A: What would it mean for you and the program for ODU to win this thing?!

ZR: Being the underdogs, this would a significant sense of accomplishment from being part of a team that can boast such a victory. The exposure this would give the team members to prospective employers is also no small thing. For ODU, it would mean more attention from the region in terms of the strength of the College of Engineering and Technology. Coupled with the recent success of our other competition teams, it would be a nice feather in ODU’s cap as they seek new students and funding to improve the reputation of the program.

Check out this video from the ASCE on the 2012 national champs from Cal Poly: the future school of our very own Matt McKechnie!

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