May 20, 2011

Solar-powered boat competition inspires teens

Reporting from Winchester, Calif. -- Before the competition had even begun, Ty Kastendiek was told, again and again, that he and his boys had already won.

The math and social studies teacher at Camp David Gonzales, a juvenile probation camp in Calabasas, had worked tirelessly with a group of incarcerated young men to turn a kit of wooden planks into a solar-powered boat, able to compete against vessels built by high school students from across Southern California.

Teenagers who before couldn't tell you the difference between a bow and a stern — who have never driven a boat — were competing against teams from such schools as La Cañada, Compton and Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Three students — the skippers, Richard and Christian, both 18, and the mechanic, Marco, 16, — traveled to the Solar Cup, the Metropolitan Water District's recent three-day competition that had 40 teams testing the speed and stamina of their sun-powered boats. The team participated with the backing of the Las Virgenes Water District. (Because they are minors, a juvenile court judge barred their last names from being publicized.)

While other teams had the same students throughout preparation for the competition, Camp Gonzales, a Los Angeles County Office of Education school, didn't have that luxury; teammates rotated as sentences ended and new students came in.

Kastendiek doesn't know exactly why the students are being held at the probation camp, but he said he chose this group because they were quiet and smart and seemed like good kids.

The fact that probation officers allowed them such leeway to leave the camp for an overnight trip (they slept at another camp closer to the competition) was a testament to the responsibility and commitment these students have shown, said Arlene Rosen, Camp Gonzales' principal.

At the 9th annual competition that started May 13 at Lake Skinner, a reservoir nestled among green-covered mountains and vineyards near Temecula, it was clear what kind of odds the Camp Gonzales boys were up against.

For one, they didn't have access to a machine shop or power tools, much less engineers as parents. Some teams had fancy dashboards; one had an antenna hooked up to send a live feed showing speed and battery power to teammates on the bank. La Cañada High's team banner boasted the backing of NASA/JPL.

Compared with their high-tech counterparts with graphically designed exteriors, Camp Gonzales' wood grain boat looked like an amphibious school desk.

But they consciously left it that way. The team's mantra, Richard said, was "power, simplicity, weight." Painting the boat would have added superfluous ounces. "Hey, at least we got the stickers!" he added, pointing to the emblems for the Las Virgenes Water District and the school's mascot, a Spartan, which seemed to match the team philosophy.

And their homemade solar panels — which were much lighter, and a fraction of the price — had their competitors impressed.

The Camp Gonzales team members proved they could hold their own. Christian took the helm in the first leg of the competition Saturday, a 90-minute marathon of laps around the lake. He hummed along at a steady 5.5 mph, completing eight laps, as other boats were being towed to the dock after conking out.

The most powerful moment of the competition, though, came when something went terribly wrong.

When it was Richard's turn to drive in the afternoon endurance run, a mishap in the boat's wiring kept it from starting. Rosen said her students tend to back down in moments like this, giving up immediately to a world that they say is constantly against them.

Instead, they jumped in. As they tried to figure out what happened, one student reassured Kastendiek. They came up with a solution and fixed it in under a half-hour, allowing Richard to still make five laps.

As Richard hurried onto the lake, Rosen's eyes welled with tears.

At the competition's close, Camp Gonzales came in second out of the rookie teams, and 12th place overall. But the experience brought about a much bigger victory for these students, and for Rosen and Kastendiek as well.

"I'm proud of my boys — they held it together, never got down. I saw them grow up today," Kastendiek said. "Are they better students and human beings after this experience? Yeah. I can hang my hat on that."

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