Cardboard or Concrete
Creativity Rules in Canoe Building

by Tom Bie

Volume 21 Issue No. 2 March/April 2000

Link to original article.

Indeed, the building and racing of boats is taking on an increasingly creative nature, with many competitions around the country granting as many points for originality as race results.  From Dragon Boats to Huck Finn's log raft, innovation has been the key.  Following are two stories on alternative materials, one high-tech, one no tech, proving once again that inventiveness and vision is alive and well in paddlesports. 

The Cardboard Contender

Kenneth Spillers is a 40-year-old mechanic at a golf course in rural Arkansas.  He's also the reigning champ of Southern cardboard canoe racing, winning this summer in convincing fashion at competitions in Heber Springs, Ark., Jacksonville, Ark., and Pascagoula, Miss.  "I took an easy win in Heber," Spillers says.  "Only took me 45 seconds to go 200 yards."  The Cardboard King credits his success to three things.  "First, you've gotta be an athlete," he says. "Second is the shape of your boat - you can't just take an old refrigerator box out there and expect to win.  And third, you've got to have a good stroke.  Some folks just 'panic paddle' and that won't do it."

Spillers isn't afraid to travel to win.  He made a 700-mile round-trip journey to the Mississippi race and plans on driving all the way to Illinois next summer.  "I'm single and don't have any children," he says.  "I turned 40 in January and this is like going back to my childhood."

Cardboard canoe racing isn't exactly new - one annual event in Carbondale, Ill. is entering its 26th year.  And of course there are rules, even in this off-beat competition.  Boats are constructed using four layers of corrugated cardboard and glue can be used to hold the thing together but only if it has no catalysts or hardeners.  Spillers' boat, which he used in all three victorious races, is 14 and a half feet long and weighs 25 pounds.  "I laminated each sheet of cardboard and held it together with duct tape and liquid nails," he says.  "But I plan on being even faster next year.  I'll have a new boat and I'll be out to win."

The Heavy Favorite University of Alabama-Huntsville loses Concrete Canoe Crown

The words "concrete canoe" go together about as well as "lead kite" or "scenic dam project."  Yet for a dozen years, civil engineering students across the country have gathered at the National Concrete Canoe Competition to test brains and brawn in an increasingly competitive environment.

"It's not always the winning team on the water that wins the competition," explains John Gilbert, professor of engineering and coach of four-time champion University of Alabama at Huntsville.  "It's becoming a very comprehensive and formidable event."  Gilbert should know.  His team was the defending champ coming into this year's event in Melbourne, Fla., but a poor showing in the "display" category cost UAH major points, forcing them to relinquish the 1999 crown to Clemson.

"They basically had something that paralleled a Broadway production," says Gilbert of Clemson's boat display.  "But to their credit, they elevated the competition." Gilbert says the loss likely taught his engineering students a valuable lesson about the business world.  "We won the best boat contest, we won the design report contest and we won the races,"  he says.  "So it seems like promotion won out over technology.  But it's important for these students to understand that, in order to obtain an engineering contract, you must have marketing skills as well."

Concrete canoe races have taken place at the intramural level since the late '60s, followed by regional competitions at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana.  Every year, a different school hosts the national event, with attendees selected from 20 regional races around the country.  The concept is to create a concrete mixture lighter than water - a seemingly impossible task to anyone who's ever picked up a slab of sidewalk.

But these are America's best and brightest.  They've figured out how to create mixtures - of which at least 75 percent must be cement - weighing 35-50 pounds per cubic foot, instead of the typical 150-160 pounds per cubic foot.  Fresh water weighs about 62 pounds per cubic foot.  Boats are allowed flotation cavities in the first two feet of bow and stern, but they must be filled with something - usually Styrofoam.  These flotation pockets help a boat pass its first crucial, pre-race test - resurfacing on its own after being fully submerged.

The innovative concrete mixtures, coupled with efficient hull designs, have helped the boats achieve some amazingly fast results in recent years - 9 mph over a 200-meter sprint course.  "These boats are very quick," Gilbert says.  "They're approaching the straight-line speed of Olympic C-1 boats."  UAH's 1999
entry was 22 feet long and weighed a wispy 69 pounds.  At least one admirer agrees that the boats are achieving results worth noticing.  "I'd never heard of the races until this year and it was a tough sell for me in the beginning," says Mike Montgomery, events manager for USA Canoe/Kayak.  "But they're sneaking up
on us.  I see this as a great inroad to the college paddler and the methods these students are using can be applied to so many applications."

So many indeed.  Gilbert says the knowledge gained in the creation of concrete canoes is being looked at for a variety of other uses.  "Some of the technology being developed here is being transferred to the marketplace and is being considered for low-mass shelters in space or low-cost housing materials," he
says.  "And the day may come when someone says to us, 'Hey, build us an Olympic boat.'  An inch in technology can be the difference between a silver and a gold."