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UVa, Miller School compete in (and lose) concrete canoe race

Since last summer, students at universities across Virginia and West Virginia have been doing something that isn’t the norm on the water: making concrete canoes that will float.

Last Friday, the designs were put to the test at Claytor Lake in Pulaski County.

The concrete canoe race is part of a larger symposium held at Virginia Tech, hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Six universities competed against each other: Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, Liberty University, Old Dominion University, the University of Virginia and Fairmont State University. A private high school also competed, the Miller School of Albemarle.

Virginia Military Institute was also set to compete, but its canoe experienced issues before the contest began.

Before the competition, teams were given a 50-page set of guidelines. While the concrete was a requirement, admixtures for the concrete was up to the competitors.

Maura Harbaugh, one of the two team captains for Virginia Tech, said they opted for an unusual addition to their concrete mix.

“We used these K37 glass bubbles in our mixture,” Harbaugh said. “It’s sort of pricey, but we think it’ll be really effective.”

Virginia Tech’s canoe, the Apex Predator, was one of the glossiest on the competition roster, emblazoned with waterproof gloss on the front and back. The sanding process for the canoe took days. According to Harbaugh, the canoe started out with a weight of 250 pounds, before getting sanded down to 219 pounds.

“We really worked hard to make it look like a canoe you would go out and buy at a store,” said Austin Minnick, Virginia Tech’s other team captain.

While the teams were able to conduct some tests with their canoes, they were not allowed to test them in the water until the day of the races. A series of “swamp tests” started the day, in which the teams took their canoes into the water and filled them with water to ensure they wouldn’t immediately sink.

To some extent, the look of the canoe does factor into the competition. One of the requirements was that the teams present a proposal for their design that could be mass produced, according to Harbaugh.

The race portion of the competition consisted of two categories, a slalom race, in which each individual team went through an obstacle course of buoys to demonstrate maneuverability and speed, as well as sprint races.

Each category had a men’s and women’s portion, and the sprint had an additional co-ed race. For the slalom race, Virginia Tech finished first in the men’s and women’s categories.

Both of the women paddling for Virginia Tech, sophomores Leah Goulet and Michaela Foster, said they competed last year, and have spent the run-up to the competition practicing in last year’s concrete canoe. The extra practice paid off, and the women finished with a time of 3 minutes and 35 seconds, beating their closest competitor, UVa, by eight seconds.

“We finished 10 minutes earlier than last year,” Goulet said.

In the sprint races, Virginia Tech finished second in both men’s and women’s categories, both times falling behind Fairmont State University.

With the victories in the slalom category, Virginia Tech students will qualify to compete at the national concrete canoe tournament hosted by Brigham Young University in Utah.

“I’m just really proud of all of us,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve been practicing for months, and I feel like it’s paid off.”


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