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Concrete racers tackle 90-Miler

Drexel students will switch to kevlar for this weekend’s race

September 9, 2011
By MIKE LYNCH - Sports Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE - A trio of paddlers from Philadelphia's Drexel University who are paddling in this weekend's Adirondack Canoe Classic likely have a boating background that no other competitors can match.

They are concrete canoe racers.

"They are very different from a regular boat," Charles Zebley said. "Extremely different. They are heavy. They have a lot of mass. They have a lot of momentum. They often don't turn well."

Article Photos

Drexel University students Zach Zervas (bow) and Charles Zebley (stern) will be paddling in this weekend’s 90-Miler canoe and kayak race. They are pictured in their Drexel University concrete canoe.
(Photo courtesy of Charles Zebley)

To be clear, Zebley and fellow engineering students Zach Zervas and Lauren Reiter aren't going to be paddling a concrete canoe in the three-day 90-Miler, which starts today in Old Forge and ends Sunday in Saranac Lake. That would be insane, and perhaps impossible. They will be in a lightweight three-person kevlar canoe this weekend.

When the trio isn't preparing for the 90-Miler, which will be the first for each of them, they spend time designing, building and racing concrete canoes. They do it for Drexel University's local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which oversees concrete canoe racing among colleges throughout the United States.

Each year, the ASCE's committee for the National Concrete Canoe Competition sets guidelines for the national race that is held in June. Students then take those rules and start working on designs for concrete canoes that they will race the following spring in regional competitions. Winners of the regional competitions then go on to nationals.

Zebley said there are four aspects of concrete canoe racing that factor into a team's overall point total in competitions. Students gain points through oral presentations on the design process, in-depth papers on the design process, aesthetic qualities of the boat and their placing in a competitive race against other concrete boats.

The process and competition provides the students "with a practical application of the engineering principles they learn in the classroom, along with important team and project management skills they will need in their careers," according to the ASCE's website. "The event challenges the students' knowledge, creativity and stamina, while showcasing the versatility and durability of concrete as a building material."

The Drexel University concrete canoe team generally is made up of about 10 to 15 students who put in five to six hours a week from September to April, Zebley said. Overall, a couple thousand man-hours go into the project, he said.

Last year, Zebley said his team created a canoe that was about 20 feet long and weighed roughly 300 pounds.

"A lot goes into the design. It's really a group effort where you have to decide on the whole design," Zebley said. "How do we want to finish the canoe? Do we want it to be smooth and sand it down to a nice fine few hundred grit sandpaper and make it gloss?"

One of the biggest challenges of creating a concrete vessel is making one that won't crack or fall apart. The students must also decide on the best way to reinforce the concrete, using a wire mesh design to hold it together, similar to the way re-bar may hold together a sidewalk.

"Concrete boats that are reinforced well, hold together very well. You can get in a boat with four people and just paddle all day without seeing any fractures or cracks," Zebley said. "Concrete boats that aren't reinforced that well have the exact opposite effect. They tend to develop hairline fractures and then those hairline fractures (expand) when a more sustained load is applied repetitively due to paddling. That can tend to develop into larger cracks and even break the hull open. The biggest part of the paddling is the reinforcement aspect."

Once the students design the canoe, they take it to whatever college is hosting the Mid-Atlantic regional competition and put it into the water. This is often the first time it is used because the students don't want to damage the canoe before the race. They practice using other regular canoes.

The concrete canoe races consist of five races that vary according to gender and distance. Last year, they ranged from 200-meter sprints to a 600-meter endurance event.

Six hundred meters might not sound like much of an endurance race, but is actually pretty difficult due to the weight of the canoe. Just getting the boat off the starting line can be a challenge.

"It's hard to get it started, because you are trying to move 300-plus pounds from a stationary position through water," Zebley said. "It definitely carries a lot of momentum with it."

While the students receive guidance on the design aspect of the boat from professors, they receive on-the-water coaching from David Cliffel, a volunteer who became interested in the sport about a decade ago.

Cliffel is an experienced 90-Miler paddler who will be doing his 10th race this weekend with his wife Colleen. Cliffel is the one who introduced Zebley to the 90-Miler and said that Zebley really showed interest in the 90-Miler from the start.

"He was the kind of guy who wants a bigger challenge," Cliffel said. "He's the kind of the guy who likes to pay attention to the details of preparation, who likes to get things done, to lead a group. And he was very interested."

Set on doing the race, Zebley convinced Zervas and Reiter to join him in this year's 90-Miler. The trio started training regularly for the race in June. Cliffel provided them with guidance, telling them about the nuances of the race. He explained to them how they would need to portage on trails, come up with a drinking and food system during the race and generally just work as a team.

The race will be a polar opposite from what the students are used to. The boat they are using weighs roughly 250 pounds less than the concrete vessel and likely won't crumble or crack as they glide across the water.

"I'm ecstatic. I've never done something of this magnitude. I'm just thrilled," Zebley said. "We really don't know what to expect and he's just trying to prepare us for the excitement and all the activity that goes on at the races. I think we're going to have a really great time. I just can't tell you how proud I am to be part of something this awesome."



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