You’ve probably heard of the expression, “That will go over like a lead balloon.” Even though the rock band Led Zeppelin flipped the saying on its head, the expression is typically used to describe something that is destined for failure. Well, have you heard the one about the concrete canoe? That could be because, for a time, concrete boats and ships, including canoes, were a real thing. In this piece, we’re going to look at a seemingly paradoxical oddity of construction — the idea of a concrete ship.

Who invented the concrete boat? Were they completely insane?

When you look at your typical concrete brick, you usually don’t see how anything made of concrete could float — but you’re also not Joseph-Louis Lambot. He built the first concrete boat (also known as a ferrocement watercraft) in dinghy form in 1848. The boat was featured in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, which we’re guessing means that it hadn’t sunk in the meantime. The use of concrete as an inexpensive material for building boats took off in the early 1860s — mostly in the form of smaller vessels that would travel on European canals. It’s nice to know that you could still see land while traveling on these early floating bricks.

"Walter Dowsey, Uploaded by Great Great Grandson, found while cleaning." Public Domain

“Walter Dowsey, Uploaded by Great Great Grandson, found while cleaning.” Public Domain

The Advent of Concrete Ships

Once enough concrete boats proved themselves in the canals of Europe, shipbuilders were beginning to take concrete seriously as material for sea-faring vessels. Around 1896, an Italian engineer by the name of Carlo Gabellini started using concrete to build ships, the most famous being the Liguria. At the beginning of the 20th century, ships made with concrete and reinforced with steel bars were being used mostly in the form of barges. The remains of such an early concrete vessel named Violette, a concrete cruiser from this era, can still be seen in Hoo, Kent, England(We’re sad to report that it is officially not available for hire or for excursions — probably because it’s a giant mass of concrete and rebar in the shape of a ship on the British coast.) In 1917, the first self-propelled concrete ship, named Namenfjord, was built in Norway. It’s success caught the notice of other shipbuilders in The United States. Multiple companies were established to build concrete ships.

Some concrete ships were built to operate as oil tankers while some were even built for service in the U.S. military during World War I. During World War II, concrete remained a material for shipbuilding due to steel shortages. Many of these concrete vessels lacked their own propulsion — being towed as barges or used to carry troops. There were plans to develop a submarine-like freighter out of concrete, but the war ended before further research could be conducted — thank goodness.

Concrete Ships Today

Believe it or not, there are still concrete ships on the high seas today. Most sea-worthy concrete ships these days are built and maintained by hobbyists — we’re guessing due to their affinity for sailing bricks. Still, the large variety of concrete ships exist in the form of some of the most inadvertently spooky tourist attractions as their weathered hulls jut out of the water in such places as Galveston, TX (the SS Selma), Lana’i, Hawaii (The YOGN 42, which you can see being purposefully sunk), and Aptos, CA (the SS Palo Alto).

At Cowen Construction, we’re definitely not opposed to using concrete in the construction of your next commercial or residential project. In fact, the sky is the limit when it comes to bringing your construction projects to life. We’d love to help you build your dreams.