IMAGE: START OF SOLAR BOAT RACE
Niels Westra  /  AP
The Frisian Nuon Solar Challenge gets under way Monday in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. The week-long race travels a 140-mile course.
updated 6/26/2006 12:58:58 PM ET 2006-06-26T16:58:58

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines — sort of.

The "Frisian Nuon Solar Challenge" race for boats powered exclusively by solar panels got off to a challenging start Monday, under cloud cover and a light drizzle.

More than 20 college teams from Europe and the United States are competing, and while a similar competition is held on land in Australia under a blazing sun, these contestants have built crafts to navigate the lakes, rivers, and creeks in the far northwest of the Netherlands, where thunderstorms are common.

It would take a minor miracle for clear skies to prevail for the duration of the race, which runs from Monday to July 1.

An early favorite is the entry from Delft University of Technology, which won the Australian road race three times. Last year, the flat aerodynamic wing-shaped car averaged more than 60 mph, besting challengers from the U.S., Japan and Australia.

Organizers predict the top speed in this race will be much slower, because of the greater force required to propel a boat through water.

"It's going to be a very different kind of race, with wind, currents and navigation all playing a role," said organizer Andries van Weperen. "Since this is the first time, experience will have to be our teacher."

He said it was not likely that the race will inspire a revolution in shipmaking, given that wind already provides a renewable source of energy for sailboats. But he said the event will draw attention to the increasing quality of solar panels and batteries.

All competitors in the race are powered by solar energy, which charges the batteries that turn the boats' propellors.

The Delft team's vessel, made with a foam core, carbon hull and coated with a silicone resin, seeks to maximize the surface area carrying solar panels. It sharply curves at the waterline to minimize drag beneath the surface.

"I guess you could say it looks a little like an aircraft carrier," said spokesman Martijn Hoornaert. The boat is 25 feet long; other boats are as short as eight feet.

Several teams, like the entry from Gdansk University of Technology in Poland, are trying a catamaran approach, with panels stretched between the two hulls.

Others entries seem to be regular boats with solar panels strapped to the deck.

"There's no need to reinvent the wheel," said Faduma Yusser of Drenthe College.

The sole American team, from Cedarville University in Ohio, is a dark horse. Two-time winners of the Solar Splash sprint race in the United States, the Americans have visited the Netherlands twice to check the course.

The race will follow the same route as the "Elfstedentocht" or Eleven Cities marathon skating race. The Elfstedentocht hasn't been held in a decade because it requires a long, deep freeze. Many people fear the tradition may be lost due to global warming.

On the fifth stage of the 140-mile boat race, racers will be required to portage their boats over two dams.

Hoornaert of Delft said his team believes their boat will be fastest in the water, but it might break down.

"Our boat has simply not undergone enough testing," he said. "It's never been in the water for more than half an hour at a time."

Some competitors are proud just to be showing up.

"We are definitely not going to win," said Rene van Dam of the Friese Poort junior college, testing his team's boat in a canal in Leeuwarden. "We've seen some of the other designs, and they're better."

He said his team took pride in designing and building their own boat on a shoestring budget.

Asked how far and long it could travel, he was stumped.

"The hull is made of carbon. Ten years? If you kept it right, 20 years? You might need a new battery or new wires at some point."

He climbed into the boat and it slid away, as quietly as a fish, doing about 5 knots (about 6 mph).

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