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Nautical rally puts sun-powered craft to test in Netherlands

LEEUWARDEN, Netherlands -- Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines -- and pray for sunny skies.

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

More than 20 teams from Europe and the United States have converged on the Netherlands' rainy northwest to navigate a 140-mile course of lakes, rivers, and creeks.

A favorite is from Delft University of Technology, which won a solar-powered automobile race three times in Australia.

Last year, the team's wing-shaped car averaged more than 60 miles per hour on land, besting challengers from the United States, Japan, and Australia.

Organizer Andries van Weperen said conditions yesterday were ``less than ideal" -- but that's part of the point.

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

He said that with teams operating at the frontier of what's technologically possible, mishaps are inevitable.

During a qualifying race for the pole position Saturday, a boat from the Northern College of Leeuwarden pulled out after its main battery exploded. There were no injuries but ``it was pretty dramatic," Van Weperen said.

``The whole boat was on fire," he said.

The boats started in heats yesterday morning and one of the dark horses -- the team from Cedarville University in Ohio -- averaged 5.8 mph over the first segment of the course. The Americans were prepared for poor weather, having visited the Netherlands ahead of time to check the course.

The Delft team's vessel seeks to maximize the surface area carrying solar panels. It sharply curves at the waterline to minimize drag.

``I guess you could say it looks a little like an aircraft carrier," said spokesman Martijn Hoornaert. The boat is 25 feet long; others in the competition are as short as 8 feet.

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