Laguna Creek students prep boat for Monaco race

Inside a brightly lit Laguna Creek High School trailer, Griffin Henderson was hard at work last week putting the final touches on a boat he said was “designed to cut through water with a knife.”

This was no ordinary vessel headed for a local pond.

Instead, the plywood and fiberglass structure that runs on solar energy is destined for the pristine waters of the French Riviera. A team of students from Laguna Creek’s Green Energy Technology Academy plan to compete at the Solar1 World Boat Championship in Monte Carlo in July.

“We’re really representing the U.S. and the West Coast,” said co-coordinator Eric Johnson, a science teacher at Laguna Creek who heads the school’s GETA program, a four-year curriculum in which students study the technology of renewable energy. “We get to speak on a world platform by doing this race.”

Laguna Creek won the Northern California Solar Regatta in May for the third consecutive year at Rancho Seco Recreational Area. After taking the Regatta Cup for high schools and middle schools on the first day of competition, the Elk Grove team beat college teams on the second day.

As officials in Monaco searched for solar boats around the world, they contacted the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, said Suzette Bienvenue, education specialist in SMUD’s Energy and Technology Center.

Monte Carlo race organizers “wanted to know if (the students) were interested in participating in the regatta,” she said. “We couldn’t be any happier for an exceptional bunch of students. It makes them stand out because they are going to be promoting our solar regatta.”

A solar boat relies on panels to convert sunlight into energy that can power a watercraft motor. A pilot uses pedals to steer the boat, but all of the power is supplied by solar energy. In the Northern California competition, boats typically traveled at a speed between 5 mph and 8 mph, Bienvenue said.

As of last week, the team had raised about a third of the money it needs to travel to Monte Carlo. The trip to Monaco will cost an estimated $30,000, according to Johnson. So far, the academy has raised $11,000 through funds from community partners, scholarships and private donors. The Sacramento Bee provided $5,000 toward the trip.

The school has raised at least enough funds to send the boat and a pilot, Bienvenue said. But the team wants to send five additional high school students, along with Johnson and two SMUD officials.

“We’re moving forward,” Johnson said.

The Laguna Creek crew hopes to be the only high school in the world that will race in the three-day Monte Carlo Cup, and one of only two U.S teams. The other team is from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Held in July, the Monte Carlo Cup features a field of elite nautical powerboat racers where competitors are tested in speed, endurance and maneuverability. Laguna Creek is scheduled to run against college-level and professional teams from Belgium, the Netherlands and Brazil.

Established in 2008, GETA teaches students about alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and biofuel power. Class projects have resulted in go-karts, battery-powered bicycles and wind turbines. Students also have built solar suitcases containing portable panels, which they have shipped to African nations that lack electricity, according to Johnson.

For Duke Vang, who will be a senior at Laguna Creek this fall and plans to pursue a career in computer science, enlisting in the academy has educated him to be more socially responsible. “I used to be an indoor person; now I get to work on cool projects that help others with my friends.”

Molly Kelly, a Laguna Creek graduate and the pilot for Team SMUD – named after the public utility that is sponsoring the nine-member crew – joined the academy two years ago because the classes offered her a “hands-on approach to learning” and “real-world experience.”

The 18-year-old pre-med student at the University of Nevada, Reno, was delighted when her former teacher asked her if she would be interested in going to Europe to drive the boat.

“Mr. Johnson called me and was wondering what I was doing this summer,” Kelly recalled. “When he told me what was happening, I was super excited. I said ‘Yes!’ ”

The announcement also caught by surprise Henderson, 18, who will be a senior at Laguna Creek this fall. “I’ve never traveled outside the United States before,” he said.

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