The Cal Poly Solar Regatta Club made a big splash at the 2023 California Solar Regatta, placing No. 2 overall and No. 1 in technical design with the boat that saw water for the first time less than 48 hours before competition.
Students across the state spend the school year working in teams to design and build solar-powered boats that they showcase and race in a series of events at the Rancho Seco Recreational Area near Sacramento.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD, sponsors the annual regatta to promote renewable energy through solar technology and innovation, engaging students in a project that connects design and engineering.
Cal Poly students showed their mettle during the competition, redesigning the propeller at the last minute, pinning the steering shaft with rivets a team member had in her luggage and changing course on race day to combat solar power’s worst enemy – rain.
“Our boat performed much better than we expected given the challenges we faced, including having a limited amount of time,” said Regatta Club Co-President Emerson Nicholas. “We came close to beating the team that’s won five years in a row and at the rate we’re improving, we’ll overtake them next time.”
Recruiting in Rome
Two mechanical engineering senior project teams developed a boat and solar-powered propulsion system in 2019-20 to enter the California Solar Regatta for the first time. Two years and two COVID cancellations later, the team placed second in their debut.
At the start of fall 2022, only three club members were left – Kaveh Shafiei, lead programmer and electrical engineering major, and co-presidents Nicholas and Cooper Nichols, both second-year mechanical engineering majors who grew up on islands in Washington.
Rebuilding could have been complicated by the fact that Nicholas, from Bainbridge Island, was studying engineering in Rome during fall quarter, but distance was no match for him.
He joined a group of engineering majors for the Cal Poly Abroad program eager to discuss their engagement in extracurricular activities.
“When we all got to Rome, we started talking about the clubs we were involved with … so when I returned winter quarter, I came back to the club with friends!” he said with a big smile.
Nichols, who grew up on Fidalgo Island and worked as a sea kayak guide, happily welcomed back Nicholas and his new friends who more than doubled the club’s membership. They’d grown in ranks but only had 15 weeks to design, build and test the boat for the May 15 race.
While Nicholas was recruiting in Rome, Nichols created a design for a super sleek vessel. That boat would have to be molded into one piece, foils and all, which ultimately proved too much for the team and their limited experience with composites.
“We had the design but there was no way to manufacture it. It just wasn’t going to work,” said Nicholas, adding they had to shift to Plan B with just six weeks left.
They found a surfski from Epic Kayaks Inc. that was trucked to the team from San Diego and members shifted into high gear to modify the boat designed for offshore kayak racing to run on solar power. SMUD provided solar panels for each team’s entry.
They labored day and night, sanding parts of the boat by flashlight and making last-minute adjustments, including a redesign of the propeller hours before leaving for Sacramento.
“As stressful as it was, the week before the competition was my favorite,” Nichols said. “Everyone realized how behind we were and came together to make it happen. It was neat to see people find the motivation to get there.”
Rivets to the Rescue
The day of departure dawned, and team members faced yet another challenge: They had to take midterms at noon, then travel five hours and make check-in at 5 p.m.
They arrived just in time, only to find that their steering shaft had broken. A club member who joined the team from her internship at SpaceX still had rivets in her luggage that members used to improvise a fix just hours before the race.
Then the rain arrived.
Teams had to shift to battery power for a series of events that tested their boat’s speed, distance and maneuverability at the recreational area’s lake that is surrounded by a solar farm.
The sprint called for a speedy sail across 100 meters, while the slalom required the boat to swerve through buoys. In the endurance challenge, boaters used a regulated battery to see who could count the most laps in 25 minutes.
Cal Poly’s boat – nicknamed the Starship Enterprise for its sleek appearance and color scheme that was like the “Star Trek” spacecraft – won the endurance event and came within 4 points of taking the overall win.
Nicholas is already strategizing about ensuring the Starship Enterprise beats perennial powerhouse City College of San Francisco and takes the top spot next year.
“We have 50 weeks to make our boat better,” he said, adding he intends to establish a schedule to ensure prompt completion of tasks.
Nicholas ultimately hopes to use his recruiting powers to entice more first-year students so he can sustain the club’s momentum and eventually pass the torch as it was once passed to him.
“People can get involved easily, which is a big selling point,” he explained. “We keep it light and fun.”
By Emily Slater