Nevada Concrete Canoe: The Story of Going from Zero to Hero

One of the things that the University of Nevada, Reno ASCE Student Chapter is known for is our Concrete Canoe Team.  When I came to the University of Nevada in 2004, we didn’t have a Concrete Canoe Team and hadn’t for about 6 years.  We competed back in the 1990s but we were never a national contender.  If you’re reading this and wondering why we made a canoe from concrete, check out my other article about how we make concrete float.

Our distant past can only be summarized through old photos we found in our student lounge of canoes from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  The oldest one we could locate is of a canoe called “Blue Goose” being transported across campus to Manzanita Lake in an old van.  There are others we found as well, most notably “The Expedition,” “Pink Lady,” and the short little canoe that just makes me laugh.

When I transferred to UNR in 2004, we hosted the Mid-Pacific Conference (Mid-Pac) and did not have  a concrete canoe.  It was the first time I ever saw the competition.  I vividly remember hosting the races at the Sparks Marina and Cal Berkeley was the well-known champion of our region.  They had a canoe called ComiCAL, which was clown themed (I have to say you guys…it was mildly traumatizing, depending on your thoughts on clowns). One student member of our chapter, Kevin Crifasi, decided he wanted to start a canoe team with one purpose: beat Berkeley. I really think Cal should take that as a compliment because they were so good that no one ever really expected to beat them.

In 2005, Kevin did start the program back up at UNR.  It was a rough year since we had no previous information to build from (except the awesome photos of Blue Goose, Pink Lady, and a canoe broken into pieces). Just constructing the mold was a nightmare.  The team cut 2” cross-sections of the 22’ long canoe out of Styrofoam using a hot wire setup from a guitar string, PVC pipe, and a car battery. Perhaps we shouldn’t tell OSHA.  They glued the sections together and sanded them down to make a uniform shape.  Kevin was so afraid the canoe was going to break that he added about 12 ribs to the inside. The final coating was a layer of green-colored Elmer’s Glue.  It wasn’t the prettiest, but Kevin and his team pulled off building a 22’ long canoe made entirely of concrete.

We went to Mid-Pac in Sacramento and competed for our first time.  Once again, Berkeley put on a stellar performance.  As first-time competitors, we didn’t stand much of a chance. Our paddlers got into the canoe for the first time in Sacramento and we didn’t perform that well in the academic portions of the competition. To our surprise, we were announced as winning third place overall at the awards banquet.  We were floored.  But in true Steve Harvey fashion, they realized they made a mistake when it was time to announce first place.  We were forced to return our third place plaque in exchange for a fifth place pat on the back.

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The 2005 UNR Concrete Canoe Team with “All In”

Kevin’s thoughts about the entire experience are summarized below. In my opinion, it embodies the entire idea behind the statement, “ASCE Made Me.”

What the Hell am I doing??? I haven’t eaten in 2 days. Yes I slept in the Structures Lab last night. We don’t have time. We’re out of money. They have a rule against that??? How did THEY (insert any other canoe team) do it? I think I’m gonna fail out of college. What the Hell was I thinking? Hell yeah…It floats!! We did pretty well, all things considered. OK, that was fun. Would I do it again?………Without hesitation.

2006 was the first year I was directly involved on the Concrete Canoe Team.  That year I was President of the ASCE Student Chapter, and I got roped into paddling and giving the oral presentation for the team.  I didn’t do anything on the design nor did I write the design paper, so the presentation was a real stretch.  A student named Michael Taylor (now fondly referred to as the Godfather of Nevada Canoe) coached me through everything and taught me all I needed to know about concrete. He was in grad school at the time and was no longer eligible to present at the competition, so he spent a lot of extra time with me.

There are two memorable moments from that presentation for me.  First, we almost went over our time limit of 5 minutes (which is a huge point deduction).  When I realized this, I turned to the other presenter and loud-whispered across the stage, “Stop talking!” so we wouldn’t go over time.  It worked and he immediately asked if there were questions.  Second, the judges asked me if we experimented white Type I/II cement. I had no idea what that was or how to explain why we hadn’t looked into it.  I froze for what seemed like an entire minute and looked into the crowd.  There I saw Michael sitting behind the judges, vigorously shaking his head back and forth.  I simply looked back at the judges and answered, “No.”  They seemed a little shocked by the conciseness of the answer but did not ask any follow up questions.

Mid-Pac in 2006 was held at UC Berkeley and we were amped up for taking on our biggest competitor.  We put a lot of effort into every aspect of the competition; we practiced paddling before the competition, we spent a lot of time on our design paper, our final product looked quite nice, and as I mentioned above, we practiced the presentation before arriving (though I was not an expert on the material).  We ended up winning first place for the presentation category and second place overall at Mid-Pac!  Of course, Cal won first, but we were so pleased to find out that a stipulation in the rules (called the “top five rule,” which is explained at the end of this article) gained us our very first invitation to the National Concrete Canoe Competition (NCCC)!

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The 2006 Nevada Concrete Canoe Team with “euphoria”

The 2006 NCCC was held in Stillwater, OK. It was the most intense, exciting, and eye-opening trip for our team because being among the best of the best was something we never imagined.  The canoes were beautiful, the competition was stiff, and the people were serious.  Our paddling skills were not up to par and we only got points for one of the five races.  Our canoe was not very durable and actually suffered a large crack right down the center, and it took on water during our last race. Our paper was actually pretty good, though, and placed fourth overall at the national level.  The biggest surprise was the presentation.  I have never been more nervous in my life as I was before that presentation. It went pretty well and everyone kept telling us what a good job we did.  At the awards banquet, we were astounded to win first place overall  in that category!  In addition, we were given the “Spirit of the Competition Award,” which meant way more than any first place trophy could at that point. On our way home (someplace between Nebraska and Wyoming) we learned that we placed sixth overall at the competition and we couldn’t believe our ears. It was the sort of things that happens in movies.

The 2006 Nevada Canoe Team with National Trophies

The following year began with a lot of momentum. We had so many new ideas from Nationals that we really took it to the next level.  In the fall, about six of us were taking a course in prestressed concrete, and we thought it would be the coolest idea to put prestressing in our canoe (to combat the huge cracks we sustained in 2006).  We came up with an elaborate casting technique to prevent concrete delamination between reinforcing layers by pre-placing carbon fiber reinforcement on the mold. We also decided to install screws along the entire canoe length to (1) hold reinforcing in place and (2) serve as depth gauges during concrete casting.  This casting technique has become wildly popular in the concrete canoe world, and I will say with certainty that we were the ones to invent it.

Mid-Pac was co-hosted by San Jose State and Santa Clara University in 2007.  That year, we were ready for the competition. Our paddlers practiced twice as much as any other year, we put a lot of effort into our presentation and design paper, and our canoe looked amazing.  We had some very talented people (who had experience with car body work) building the canoe. And our construction technique could not have been more durable for what happened during the 2007 Mid-Pac canoe races.

The 2008 Nevada concrete canoe, “Argentum”

In an interesting turn of events, we were placed in the lane next to UC Berkeley in the final race of the day.  It was closest race I had ever seen and we were neck and neck coming to the finish line.  Berkeley barely edged in front of us and tried to slow down their canoe once they went through the buoys. But instead of slowing down, they ended up turning their canoe 90 degrees, placing them directly in our path as we crossed the finish. The front of our canoe collided with the side of their canoe, punching a massive hole in the side wall.  It was absolutely devastating and rendered their canoe unusable without repairs.  The impact location on our canoe suffered minimal damage and we walked away with only a few chips in our bow.

After that, we attended the awards banquet and we were unsure how things would turn out if Cal got to take a trip to nationals.  However, that was the year that it finally happened: we placed first overall at the Mid-Pacific Conference and beat the talented UC Berkeley team. I remember making a phone call to Kevin Crifasi with the entire team as soon as the banquet ended to tell him the news.  He could not believe what we were telling him because it was unthinkable to beat such a great school at something they were so good at.

The 2007 NCCC was held in Seattle, WA and we went with big hopes that maybe, just maybe, we could place in the top five at the national level.  We gave a strong showing at the competition, but our largest mistake was in the presentation.  Remember how I said there is a large deduction for exceeding the time limit of the presentation? Well that killed us in 2007.  The presenters went over that limit by about 3 seconds, which ultimately put us in third place instead of first place in the overall competition.  However, we weren’t upset with the presenters or our performance in any way.  That year, we were give first place in the final product category and we tied for first in the design paper category, which were huge victories on our eyes.

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The Top Three Teams at the 2007 NCCC

The next year started with a desire to win the national championship. We had an excellent team of students, and many of them were the original people from the 2006 era.  That overlap in expertise really made it possible to perfect our techniques and accomplish what we thought was impossible in 2005.  We kept our construction procedure the same and spent more hours on the categories where we lacked.  That year, we placed first again at Mid-Pac, and that year Berkeley joined us at Nationals because of the “top five rule.” We went on to win our first national championship in Montreal. I will never forget that day, that experience, and the road that ultimately took us there.

If I had to give advice to any new teams that want to achieve success in these competitions, it would be this: set high goals, emulate your biggest competition, and learn something from your failures.  I also think it’s important to have continuity to your teams and to stay involved as alumni. The concrete canoe competition in particular requires you to be well-balanced in all four categories.  Remember: having the best final product will still only get you 25% of the overall score.

Do you have any concrete stories to share? Do you know any more about the history of the Nevada Canoe Team? If so, share in the comments below!

*Top Five Rule – There is a stipulation in the national rules that says if a top-five ranking team places first in their regional conference the following year, then the second place team would also get a trip to the national competition.  However, this only applies if that team wins first in their conference. If that team wins second at the conference the following year, then only the first place team (the team who unseated them) gets invited to the national competition.

Example 1: Berkeley placed 4th at the national competition in 2005. In 2006 they won Mid-Pac, so the second place team, Nevada, was also invited to attend Nationals.

Example 2: Berkeley placed 4th at the national competition in 2006. In 2007 the University of Nevada won Mid-Pac.  Nevada was the only team invited to Nationals that year.

2 thoughts on “Nevada Concrete Canoe: The Story of Going from Zero to Hero

  1. It’s so amazing to here this time period and what felt like insurmountable struggles from a different perspective. Although my sac state canoe story wasn’t as successful I do owe unr, particularly Michael, some credit for the leaps we made in during my captainship at csus. I was lucky enough to join you guys on the trip to nationals in Seattle and I was in awe. I was trying to be the best sponge I could and take in all the steller boats and great ideas. I set my goal that year to change our mix design from an outrageously heavy mix to have a density equal to that of water. I managed to achieve it but I never could have done it without Michael help. It’s my understanding my mix with slight changes due to the rules is still being used at sac state now. I don’t know that I’d want to do it all over again but I’m grateful I did it. I made some amazing life friends and learned a lot about concrete and leadership. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story! It’s so amazing how this competition really brings us all together and truly creates memories that last a lifetime!

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