Berkeley Students ‘Float' New Boat Design

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A concrete boat may seem about as useful as a dictionary index, but to a group of civil engineering students it is a challenge they take quite seriously.

Led by fourth-year civil engineering student Margarita Constantinides, UC Berkeley's Concrete Canoe team is fresh off a win at the Mid-Pacific Conference Regionals in Santa Clara and currently preparing for June Nationals in Wisconsin.

"We're aiming to place in the top five-we haven't yet," Constantinides said.

Concrete canoe races were started in Berkeley in the 1970s and have progressed from being a local competition to one that attracts schools from across the nation.

Starting every August, production of the boat continues until March when it is tested. The team completed it in record time this April to claim victory in regional races.

This year's team opted to design an entirely new boat, substituting steel reinforcement for carbon fibers and fiberglass, layering two different types of concrete to form the hull, and using what Constantinides described as a "boat in a boat" design to increase maneuverability.

The canoe itself is 21 feet long and 130 pounds, made with special concrete that is lighter than water.

"Regular concrete has rocks inside, we use special man-made aggregate to make it less dense than water," Constantinides said. "It has ceramic microspheres and glass bubbles."

Swishing a hand through the glass bubbles, one finds them to be finer than talcum powder.

The most dense of the two forms of concrete is 65 pounds per cubic foot while the less dense is a mere 30 pounds per cubic foot. These physical attributes give the concrete boat its ability to float, considering that water is 62.5 pounds per cubic foot.

In regards to compressive strength, the denser concrete can withstand 3000 pounds per square inch. The less dense has a compressive strength of only 500 pounds per square inch giving the combination both strength and buoyancy, said team member John-Michael Wong.

Once the improved design was finished and tested with special hull-design software, the actual construction process began.

Services donated by a custom fabrication shop sped up the process by cutting out the hull mold, a potentially time-consuming first step in making the design a reality.

From there, the concrete was poured and the fibrous reinforcements added. A month-long drying process then began to allow the concrete to reach its full strength.

With all this going on during the semester, the paddling teams still managed to practice weekly at Berkeley's Aquatic Park for the races.

"You have to put four people in the boat and you have to sprint," Constantinides said. "That's dangerous. It gets really low. It gets scary."

For all the effort and focus put into the races, they actually only account for a small portion of the final score, with canoe design and the presentation of a technical paper comprising the balance of the team's score.

Based on a tradition that team names must alternate yearly to include either "Cal" or "Bear", this year's name is "Calcatraz," in honor of the Bay Area landmark.

Beating out five other schools, the team won regional honors and earned a berth at the national competition in Wisconsin.

Receiving no funding and very little in the way of prize-money, it is up to the team every year to secure the $20,000 needed to fund the making of the boat and travel costs.

"We send about 500 letters to companies every year, and this year we got money from the ASUC for the first time," Constantinides said.

"Some materials are actually donated, instead of money they're 'here's some concrete, here's some carbon fiber.' Right now though we're still short of funds to attend Nationals."

Once the team arrives in Wisconsin, they will have to contend with other perennial powerhouses including Clemson University and the University of Alabama.

"They're the schools to beat," Constantinides said.

Unlike UC Berkeley, Stanford University has yet to enter this year's concrete boat competition.

According to Constantinides, Stanford managed an entry four years ago, only to be scratched from the race when their boat sank prematurely.

"It's still probably down in that lake somewhere," Constantinides said.


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