In which the History Geek discusses whether concrete floats
Oklahoma State University is the site of a contest this week sponsored by the Society of Civil Engineers which encourages students to see if they can construct concrete watercraft that can float:
Twenty-three student teams from around the country are competing in a concrete canoe competition to find out.
Staying afloat has a lot at stake — there's even a national champion.
The 19th annual competition is organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The teams competing for the championship put their boats through aesthetic, presentation and swamping tests on Thursday, with technical presentations on Friday and, finally, a series of races Saturday on Boomer Lake in Stillwater. Teams came from coast to coast and from Canada to the Gulf.
Mike Carnivale, chairman of the national competition committee, said designing, building and floating these concrete canoes pushed students to learn in a way they might not elsewhere.
"They learn about concrete, design, project management, the works," Carnivale said.
Hmmmm, this story has caused the involuntary unleashing of my alter-ego, the History Geek. Can concrete float? Once again, history provides the answer. The first concrete boat, a rowboat, was exhibited in 1855 at the Universal Exposition in Paris. Those whacky Frenchmen-- they'll try anything.
In 1917, a California businessman founded the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in response to the US government's interest in building a concrete ship fleet; his first ship, accurately called the SS Faith, was in service from 1918 to 1921, when it was scrapped and turned into a breakwater off the coast of Cuba. Apparently being turned into breakwaters was a common fate for these ships, some of which have also been retired to that task in British Columbia and off the coast of Virginia. Several companies took part in the construction of this concrete fleet. About twelve concrete ships in all were built under this Emergency Fleet Corporation program. However, when the post-war steel shortage turned to a steel glut, the program was abandoned. Nonetheless, several of the ships in this program went on to have absolutely bizarre careers.
One of the ships built for this post World War I concrete fleet is on the National Register of Historic Places. Anyone who has ever been to Galveston may have happened upon the remains of the SS Selma, a concrete oil barge which was abandoned off Pelican Island in the 1920s. With that typical Texas sense of humor, this hulk is the official flagship of the Texas Army. No foolin.'
Another ship, the SS Palo Alto, became an amusement park for a while at Seacliff beach, north of San Francisco.
The SS San Pasquale at one time was a floating prison for Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution and is now a ten-room hotel in Cayo las Brujas.
Some of these ships were unpowered barges serving as part of the Service Force Pacific Fleet in World War II, relying upon being towed by other ships. This is a link to a fascinating first-person account of a Navy supply officer who was adrift on one of these concrete barges during a typhoon.
So, yes, kids, concrete can float. Here endeth the trivia-fest.