At the beginning of his last canoe race in the National Concrete Canoe Competition, 22-year-old UF civil engineering senior Nathan O’Donnell told his canoeing partner they were going to do absolutely everything they could to win.
At the awards ceremony later, the UF team won first place in the overall competition. The students hugged, cried and cheered “It’s Great to be a Florida Gator” as they went onstage to receive their first-place trophy and a $5,000 check. O’Donnell said the team was stunned, as it never expected to win because of how competitive the NCCC is.
About 200 universities built concrete canoes designed to float in water as part of the annual NCCC, an event hosted since 1988 by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Students spent the school year working on their canoe’s theme, design and presentation, on top of practicing their paddling in anticipation of the three-day conference at the Florida Institute of Technology.
This year’s event was held June 6 to 8 in Melbourne, Florida, hosting the first-place teams from 19 regional competitions and six randomly chosen Wildcard teams, for a total of 25 universities competing. Universities from all over the world competed, including Bannari Amman Institute of Technology of India and Université Laval of Canada. California Polytechnic State University and the University of Wisconsin, both of which have five previous first-place finishes, also competed.
Universities’ scores were determined by the construction and design of their canoe, a technical report on its development, a business presentation on the canoe’s design and their scores in five races using their university’s canoe. Students competed in men’s and women’s endurance races as well as men’s, women’s and co-ed sprint race, O’Donnell said.
In order to qualify, UF had to win the 2019 ASCE Southeast Student Conference. The conference was held in late March and saw over 20 schools — including Florida State University, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida — competing in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The UF team dedicated their canoe to the late rock star Tom Petty, a Gainesville native. O’Donnell, the team’s paddling captain, said the canoe was named “Free Floatin’” based on Petty’s song “Free Fallin’.”
“We were looking to do a theme around something very specific to Gainesville,” O’Donnell said. “His ‘I Won’t Back Down’ song plays at football games too, so we thought it was the perfect opportunity to do a tribute to him.”
This year is the first year in the team’s history it built the canoe without any foam for floatation, a common technique used by most of the competing schools. The UF team instead used a concrete mix with a lower density than water, which only two other competing schools used.
This is the second time UF has taken home the first-place prize, with its first win in 2015. UF won second place in 2017 and 2018. For this year’s win, the UF team was awarded a trophy and $5,000 in scholarship money to be split among the 16 competing students.
“UF’s team has made it a challenge to live up to the year before us,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve made the team a little bit more than just a project and more like a family.”
O’Donnell estimated between the team members, there were about 200 hours a week spent building the canoe since the start of the school year.
He has competed in NCCC for the past three years and in three canoe races this year.
“I remember sitting in the boat next to a school from Wisconsin and a school from China,” O’Donnell said. “The feeling that everybody around you goes through the same sort of struggles and demands that you do to build one of these things — you created something that most people think wouldn’t float, and yet you’re able to compete in it against other schools.”
O’Donnell said he dedicated his college career to the competition.
“This year was about leaving next year’s team with what I got three years ago: a sense of belonging and something that you feel like you are meant to be a part of,” O’Donnell said.
Quinn Duffy, FIT civil engineering senior and student chair for the 2019 NCCC, said while most people think of the event as simply a professional development, it is far more than that.
“This event is for developing the skills to be a better person as well as a better engineer,” Duffy said.
He said the event helps students develop more out-of-the-box critical thinking than most receive in their training as an engineer.
Duffy said there is a lot of emotion in the event because of the time and effort students dedicate to their canoes. He described a crowd of 612 people cheering, screaming, laughing and even drumming as students fiercely paddled in the canoes they built from scratch. UF alumni, including alumni who competed in the competition during their time at the university, supported from the sidelines.
Duffy said UF’s team did an excellent job and that he liked the canoe’s theme and design.
“But what makes UF special isn’t necessarily the canoe or the way they paddle — it’s just as a team they work really well together,” Duffy said. “They make sure they’re all double-checking their work, and they don’t make any mistakes on the academic part of the project. They’re consistent every year, which is why they do so well.”
Niam Villabrera, Susanna van de Graad, Sedona Iodice and Nathan O’Donnell (front to back) canoeing in the coed sprint race.
The canoe featured music notes and a replica of Petty’s guitar.
The UF team’s boat, Free Floatin’, is themed around Tom Petty.