Paddling Into the History Book: Cal Poly’s Concrete Canoe Team Sets a Milestone Winning its Sixth National Title

Four students paddling concrete canoe
Cal Poly civil and environmental engineering students, from left Carson Bak, Sarah Scherzinger, Heather Migdal and Nick Toma paddle during the coed race at the 2022 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Concrete Canoe Competition, June 3-5, at Louisiana Tech University. The team won that race and earned the R. John Craig Memorial Award, which honors the teamwork and dedication of the New Jersey Institute of Technology professor who spent several years promoting the National Concrete Canoe Competition but died just months before the first event was held in 1988.

Back in the water after a two-year delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cal Poly concrete canoe team returned to its winning ways at the 2022 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Concrete Canoe Competition on June 3-5, at Louisiana Tech University. The victory marks Cal Poly’s sixth championship in the 35-year history of the competition.

Cal Poly civil and environmental engineering students, from left to right, Carson Bak, Sarah Scherzinger, Heather Migdal and Nick Toma paddle during the coed race at the 2022 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Concrete Canoe Competition, June 3-5, at Louisiana Tech University.

Competing with their space-themed canoe “Europa” against 19 other universities in Ruston, Louisiana, located about 240 miles north of New Orleans, seven Cal Poly civil engineering students and an environmental engineering major not only swept the races but also finished first in the technical presentation and technical proposal categories of the competition and second in the final product prototype. Université Laval of Canada finished second, Western Kentucky was third, Youngstown State was fourth and New York University-Tandon finished fifth.

Cal Poly also received the R. John Craig Memorial Award, which honors the New Jersey Institute of Technology professor who spent several years promoting his grand vision of the National Concrete Canoe Competition to the ASCE but died just months before the first event was held in 1988. In the years since, the competition has become a perennial favorite for tens of thousands of college students in the United States and beyond.

ASCE presents the award to the winner of the Coed Sprint Race as a memorial to the teamwork and dedication of Craig.

“It feels amazing,” said civil engineering senior Heather Migdal, construction team lead. “My team and I have sacrificed so much of our time working on the canoe this year, so taking home the national title made it all worth it. It truly became a labor of love.”

Along with Migdal, the team included longtime faculty advisor Garrett Hall, civil and environmental engineering professor, and students Clarissa Arredondo, an environmental engineering senior from Santa Maria, California, and civil engineering majors: Carson Bak of Camarillo, California; Peter Cline of Modesto, California; Folsom, California’s Nathan Felde; Sarah Scherzinger from Grass Valley, California; Nicholas Toma of Alamo, California; and Michael Wang from Fremont, California. Together they set a new standard in the history of the ASCE competition.

Cal Poly’s history-making concrete canoe team includes from left, Clarissa Arredondo, Nathan Felde, Sarah Scherzinger, Carson Bak, Heather Migdal, Michael Wang and Peter Cline.

The Cal Poly win snapped what had been a four-way tie for most titles at five with UC Berkeley, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Wisconsin. Cal Poly also won concrete canoe championships in 2010-12, 2017 and 2018.

“I’m so proud of our team for breaking this record and having the most all-time wins,” said Migdal from Cupertino, California. “We didn’t know what to expect when we got here because there hadn’t been a national competition in a few years but knew we would see some pretty canoes. It was just so exciting to see how everything turned out.”

Migdal spoke with the College of Engineering at length after her return to San Luis Obispo.

With eight members, this year’s team was historically on the small side. Was that ever a problem during the construction process or at the two competitions, or did the camaraderie of the small group far outweigh the disadvantages?

Having a small team did have its challenges. Tasks that were already extremely time-consuming — like sanding the canoe or measuring materials to go into our concrete — grew longer because we lacked the people. Luckily during those long hours in the shed, we quickly grew close, and the work turned into hanging out with friends. Working in the shed became a highlight of the week. I joined canoe because I thought it was a cool project, but I stayed because of the awesome people.

Ideally, we would have a few more captains (a total of nine or 10) but we like having a small team of dedicated captains. The secret to Cal Poly’s success is knowledge transfer and that comes from having a small group of people that know everything there is to know about the project so that knowledge is more easily handed down to the next team.

Also, at regionals, our team didn’t feel small. Shout out to all the Cal Poly students who came and supported us at our presentation and on race day!

Cal Poly has a long track record of success in the Concrete Canoe Competition. How did the team use the pressure of the past to power your success?

At our regional competition there was a lot of pressure because Cal Poly has won nearly every year — 23 in the last 26 years — and our goal was to win to keep that winning streak going. My goal for the canoe itself was to build one. Only one of us has ever built a canoe before and that was before COVID. So, there was a lot of reaching out to past captains and testing new techniques to make Europa what it is. We all loved how Europa turned out and we are super proud of what we made, but there was always the question of what other schools were bringing. So, to help give us a boost in the competition we put a lot of hours into our paper and presentation, which are a quarter of the competition scoring each.

Winning regionals lifted a bit of the pressure for me because we met the standard that Cal Poly is known for, and I could be happy with whatever the outcome at nationals.

The real pressure for me was paddling. Paddling is what got me involved in canoe my first year and is incredibly important to me. Even though I have been practicing three-to-five times a week for the past six months and other schools don’t practice nearly as much — or at all — I was still nervous to compete. I had my Fitbit on me and waiting at the start line for the women’s slalom race my heart rate was at 140 beats per minute! And I don’t think it ever dropped below 110 bpm all day!

Can you summarize what being on the team means to you?

Concrete canoe has defined my college experience and has given me invaluable knowledge that can only be described as Learn by Doing at its finest.

Every day I’m learning something new. What’s even more empowering is knowing all our work is entirely done by students. We ask for support from faculty and alumni, but all the engineering that went into this canoe came solely from the students. When we run into a problem the team can fall back onto our base knowledge from our classwork, but in the end it’s the captains brainstorming and testing ways around our issues.

The Cal Poly College of Engineering understands there has been an enormous amount of turmoil and transition due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). As we continue offering support to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, we also continue providing critical updates as well as college highlights. Ours is a college full of creative and bright engineers and staff. For more information on COVID-19 visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. For more information on how Cal Poly is responding to COVID-19, visit the Cal Poly Coronavirus website Coronavirus website.

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