UW-Madison Concrete Canoe Team takes fourth consecutive national championship
The UW-Madison Concrete Canoe team was only an hour’s drive away from Stillwater, Oklahoma — the national competition site — when the trailer hauling its 162-pound, 21-foot-long canoe, Forward, blew a tire.
The canoe wasn’t damaged, but the three-time defending national champions arrived at the host university, Oklahoma State University, more than a little frazzled. “We didn’t know if it was a bad sign,” says team co-chair Dave Chmielewski, who earned a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering in May.
Despite that somewhat rocky start, the UW-Madison team recovered nicely and earned an unprecedented fourth consecutive victory at the competition, held June 15-17. It defeated 22 entries from other top engineering schools across the country; at several regional contests earlier this year, more than 200 teams competed for one of 23 slots in the national competition.
After winning three championships in a row, there was considerable pressure on the Wisconsin team this year, as well as persistent questions about the team’s “secret,” says UW-Madison Concrete Canoe advisor Steven Cramer, College of Engineering Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. “The secret was actually very simple,” he says. “The team this year won on sound engineering and application of engineering principles, attention to detail in all phases, and disciplined preparation during the past year.”
For the competition, teams participate in endurance and sprint races, which comprise 25 percent of their overall score. The remaining 75 percent of their score is based on a technical design paper, a formal five-minute oral presentation and responses to judges’ questions, and the final product and project display.
The UW-Madison design paper earned first place, the team’s final product placed second, and its oral presentation took third place. The team placed fifth in the men’s sprint, but first in the men’s and women’s endurance races and the co-ed and women’s sprints. “Five of our six paddlers were new,” says Chmielewski. “I was the only returning paddler. They didn’t exactly know what to expect. It was really windy out. We had practiced and prepared, but the weather conditions weren’t the best. We ended up winning four of our five races, and that was more than I ever thought we were going to do.”
Throughout the competition, the UW-Madison team thought it had a chance to win—in part, because no single team dominated all of the events, he says. “But 75 percent of the competition is subjective—it’s what the judges like or don’t like—so we were only completely sure about our race points. Going into the awards banquet, I ate about a third of my dinner and just breathed deeply.”
The team’s closest competitors were California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo (second place) and Clemson University (third place). For its top finish, the UW-Madison team earned $5,000 in scholarship money.
This year’s class of National Concrete Canoe Competition students is exceptionally creative, innovative and dedicated, said ASCE President Dennis R. Martenson after the competition. “As the engineers of tomorrow, they represent the future of our nation’s infrastructure, and the skills they have displayed these past three days assures me that our future will be very bright indeed,” he said.