The waters of Lake Perez at Stone Valley Recreation Center were busy Sunday as several canoes maneuvered and darted on the lake’s surface.
The shape of each was quite familiar, long and pointed at either end, but the swiftness and speed with which the vessels moved were not indicative of the primary material used to construct the canoes. All were made of concrete.
“The concrete canoe, it’s kind of an oxymoron,” said Tom Skibinski, an instructor in civil engineering and faculty adviser for the Penn State concrete canoe team. “It’s very sophisticated.”
The concrete canoe races were one part of a two-day conference that brought engineering students from universities around the region to the area. The canoes were graded by a panel of judges on the quality of construction, design, a business presentation, which all took place Saturday at the IST Building on campus. The contest finished with a series of six races on Sunday. Teams of two women, men and a coed team each ran an “endurance” race in the morning, designed to test maneuverability of the craft, and then “sprint” races in the afternoon that tested raw speed.
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The competition is designed to allow engineering students to apply their technical training along with other skills, like teamwork, fundraising and giving presentations, Skibinski said.
Drexel, Pitt-Johnstown, Maryland, Delaware and the U.S. Naval Academy also entered cement ships in the event. Each had a unique name and color scheme. Penn State’s entry was called the “Turska,” a play on the USS Torsk, a World War II-era submarine anchored in Baltimore. The canoe was painted similarly to the sub, gray with shark teeth adorning the bow.
Electrical engineering major Matt Novak, production manager of the team, said the team of about 25 engineering students began work on Turska last fall and the design of the vessel was based on a canoe fielded at last year’s competition. The first step in construction was to build a mold of wood and epoxy, which was completed in January.
The team also had to construct a frame made of steel wire to place in the mold to give the canoe its shape. Contained inside its cement exterior is a quarter-mile of 12-gauge steel wire held together with about 3,000 welds, Novak said.
Team members hand packed the cement, which was filled with glass, air-filled balls and cylinders designed to reduce weight and provide bouyancy, around the frame in January and had to let it cure for four weeks, Novak said. Construction wrapped up last week with the final artistic flourishes, Novak said, and by that time it weighed in at about 350 pounds and the team had put in about 2,600 total man hours of work on the canoe.
Clad in waders, he helped ease the Turska into the lake for its maiden voyage Sunday morning.
“Starting from scratch, it’s just amazing to see it finally in the water,” Novak said.
Penn State juniors Brittany Bolmer and Jessica Moyer, both civil engineering majors, were the first to take Turska out on open water Sunday morning, during the women’s endurance race. They paddled the canoe through a course designed to test the maneuverability and speed of the canoe in just less than 10 minutes. The pair practiced paddling on last year’s entry, which was slightly lighter, but had never run the course before.
“We felt like we were out there an hour,” Moyer said.
The event was also a test of the waters of Lake Perez. The lake was drained in 2007 to fix a leak in the dam, Stone Valley Recreation Center Supervisor Charlene Detwiler said. Water started to fill the empty lake bed in July and was officially filled Dec. 9, she said. Lake Perez has been stocked with bass and trout and will be ready for trout season Saturday. The event Sunday, the first on water there in seven years, and the return of anglers this week are a nice reintroduction of the restored body of water, she added.
“It’s a great way to kick off the lake returning,” Detwiler said.