By Katie Lannan
LOWELL -- Forget concrete jungles.
It's all about concrete marinas for a group of UMass Lowell students who loaded their 19-foot, 8-inch boat into a truck Monday morning, bound for an American Society of Civil Engineers contest in Illinois.
Fresh off a first-place win in a Northeast regional round, the 20-person team will face off against 22 other colleges in the annual Concrete Canoe Competition.
"Everyone hopes for first place, but I'd be happy with anything from one to five," said Jonathan Ernst, a Billerica native serving as the team's project manager.
Ernst and his teammates said they're confident in their chances in the contest -- and that the vessel will survive the 15-hour road trip to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"The only thing I might be nervous about is that we're driving into a small storm," said Luis Aguilar, one of the two students who will be driving the truck carrying the canoe.
Aguilar, of Lowell, was in charge of the structural analysis and hull design subcommittees in the group, coming up with designs including the tribal Riverhawk skull motif inside the boat's body.
Rather than resembling a slab of sidewalk with oars, the canoe is sleek and finely sanded, 26 inches across at its widest point. It's made of a lightweight concrete, reinforced with fiberglass mesh, and painted with bright reds, blues and greens. The group called their canoe "Moswetuset," a Native American word that means "shaped like an arrowhead."
But does it float?
It'll have to for a shot at victory. Contest entrants are judged on rowing race results as well as construction quality, design and a presentation they make.
The trick to keeping things afloat, said Ernst, is developing a concrete mix less dense than water.
In addition to spending nine months constructing the canoe, the group's paddlers have also been out in a practice canoe up to twice a week. They started on the Merrimack River before moving to Little Island Pond in Pelham.
The competition, which runs from Thursday to Saturday, will be the first time rowers climb aboard since the late-April regionals, said team member Cassandra Piorkowski, of Millis.
"It's always a little nerve-wracking getting into it," she said.
"But the practice canoe is 250 pounds," added her teammate David Nader of Andover. "So it's like weight training."