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In This Event, Catching Rays Is Hard Work

Eight High Schools Are Revving Up to Compete This Weekend With Solar-Powered Boats

May 30, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

The sun was on the students' side. Blinding, blazing and brutal to the fair-skinned, the beams of sunlight helped propel the small boat 5 to 7 mph around Corona Lake in Riverside County.

Standing along the shoreline, sweaty and thirsty, the nine students cheered for the skipper, a classmate who rode the solar-paneled boat through the calm water during a test run Wednesday.

The 10-member watercraft team from Centennial High School in Corona hopes for similar conditions this weekend during the region's first Solar Splash competition, a racing event for eight Southern California high schools on solar-powered boats that students built.

Sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the free event begins today and ends Sunday at Lake Skinner Recreation Area in Winchester and will feature teams from high schools in Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

"We're going to win," said Dustin Lloyd, 17, a junior whose metalworking and engineering skills helped build Solaris, the Centennial team's boat. But more important than victory, Lloyd said, is students' contribution to the field of solar energy, a power source kind to the environment but, as of now, heavy on the wallet.

"Five or 10 years from now, people are going to look at us and say, 'Those high school kids used solar power in a little lake,' " Dustin said. "This is what we have to look forward to. Solar power is the future."

Solar Splash is a nationwide event for high school and college students that promotes alternative technologies and conservation of resources.

Solar panels on the boats absorb the sun's rays, fueling batteries with power -- energy without pollution.

"Water is not something most people think about," said Melodie Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Western Municipal Water District. The Inland Empire agency is one of the 26 districts and cities that make up the MWD.

Schools selected to participate in the race received a kit for a hull and $3,000 from MWD member agencies, to outfit their boats with batteries, solar panels and other supplies.

That provides an even playing field for the schools, in diverse socioeconomic areas such as Anaheim, Long Beach, La Verne, Moorpark and Menifee. Trophies will be awarded Sunday in categories such as sprint and endurance racing.

Nick Zimprich, a 17-year-old senior who leads Centennial's team, is just happy that the boat floats. He wasn't so sure it would earlier this year, when he and his classmates, after an MWD-sponsored workshop, employed their drafting, engineering, metalworking, electric and carpentry skills to build Solaris.

The experience was so eye-opening and interesting, he said, that he plans to sharpen his building and engineering skills at Riverside Community College next fall. And he plans to use solar energy in his projects.

Solar Splash "gave me a head start," Nick said. "I like using materials that don't pollute. This is where things are going."

Under a scorching sun, Centennial teachers Kent Galloway and Greg Schultz coached the team during last-minute preparations before this weekend's qualifying runs and races.

"Just plug 'em in," Schultz said to a student wondering how to connect solar panels and battery packs. "They're idiot-proof."

The teachers, also solar energy enthusiasts, beamed as one of the team's skippers, 15-year-old Brandon Tibeta, glided through the lake with ease and the appropriate speed.

"These kids have worked so hard at this," said Schultz, noting that the students spent their afternoons, weekends and holidays preparing for an event expected to draw 2,000 people, including science teachers and other students who are learning about solar power.

Daisy Aguilar, 15, had to work hard in another way: eating pizza and Rice Krispie treats to pack on pounds and meet the weight requirement for skippers.

Seventeen-year-old Rudy Jaramillo did a painstaking job of painting the boat red and black, Centennial's school colors.

Jim Weise, 16, spent many hours composing technical reports and memorizing contest rules.

With any luck, the sun will also work hard, powering their boat.

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