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An interview with the members of the Electric Boat Race Team

IDEAWORKS' Electric Boat Race Team Takes First Place in Manned Category at 2022 Promoting Electric Propulsion Race

Competing against 16 teams representing other colleges and universities, Washington College’s Electric Race Boat Team – clear underdogs -- took first place in the manned class for Small Craft at the 2022 Promoting Electric Propulsion race in May, completing the 5-mile course in 22:23 and setting a new record pace of 13.4 MPH. Competitors included teams from Old Dominion University, Princeton University and University of Kentucky, among others.

The Promoting Electric Propulsion race is held annually on the Potomac River and sponsored by the American Society of Naval Engineers. This was the Washington College team’s first time out at this race, which is specifically geared to collegiate teams. Their entry was less powerful compared to some of the rest of the field, but proved superior in systems design and testing, and was ultimately the only boat in the manned class to successfully complete the entire course.

The five-member team that claimed victory at PEP included Evan McCarthy ’22 (Team Captain and Driver), Jakob Stiens ’22, Seyed Marjaei ’23, Hannah Perkins ’24 and Tristan Wright ’25.

This celebrated win was five years in the making, as the team has been hard at work since 2017 with the continued iterative design and development of an all-electric race boat. “Each year’s team builds on the collective successes and learns from the collective mistakes of the previous year,” said Brian Palmer, Director, Digital Media Services and advisor to the student-run team. The setbacks the team encountered were an integral part of the process of identifying problems likely to be encountered and trying to eliminate those points of failure. In fact, the time the team has dedicated to finding and fixing weaknesses over the past few years made the victory even more meaningful. “Most of the other teams had more powerful motors, higher voltage batteries and boats that should have beaten us on paper,” added Palmer. “Where our team won was by taking what resources we had available and making the very best complete system we could manage.”

For example, an April test run of the boat revealed that the air-cooled electric motor slowly increased in temperature when run at race speed. They put their heads together and designed and built a water-cooled jacket around the motor in order to actively cool it with ice water. On race day, they were then able to run the motor wide open without concern.

Team member Jakob Stiens ’22 is a 3:2 Engineering student at Columbia University felt that one of the most useful setbacks they had was with the battery. By dealing with sagging voltages and underperforming battery cells, the team learned to create strong, long-lasting battery packs that maintained their voltage. In the end, that reliability is what gave them the edge.

“It was very satisfying to see ours outperform everyone in terms of long-term reliability,” said Stiens. “Pretty much every boat had some sort of electrical or other design flaw that caused them to eventually lose power. Ours was the only boat in our category to make the whole race from start to finish.”

Team member Seyed Marjaei ’23 also sees the iterations as part of the journey, noting that working through the challenges has been lessons in both resilience and perseverance, soft skills that are critical for personal development. “We wouldn’t have had any of our successes without our setbacks,” he said.

The benefits of being part of the Electric Boat Race team extend beyond competition wins. Not only are students taking an active role in the development of the future systems and future workforce at the core of electric vehicles – a shift that is rapidly taking place – but they are also making real-world connections with potential future employers and other contacts through the vast network of the American Society of Naval Engineers, the race sponsor. And then of course, there are the skills students are learning from each other – electronics and battery design, prototype fabrication, woodworking, business, and general problem-solving.

“What makes this team different is that we aren’t just Engineers,” said Marjaei. “Even big corporations are made up of multiple departments like marketing, business and finance. We follow the same structure where everyone in any field of interest can get involved and apply their knowledge to a real, world-class project.”

Team Captain Evan McCarthy ’22 echoed that sentiment, noting the practical skills gained from being a part of the team – teamwork, leadership, and time management – all of which are applicable to any modern career path.

McCarthy also sees the tangible connections made from the events and races as a benefit to team members. “We’ve gotten to compete and collaborate with leaders, innovators and even potential employers,” he said. “Particularly in this last race, we all came out with connections to multiple teams and individuals making their mark on the industry. We got to network with companies and organizations involved with the event.”

Prior to 2022, the team had competed for several years in the Wye River CHALLENGE Electric Boat Marathon, an annual 24-mile race run by the Electric Boat Association of America. They first entered the race in 2017, but due to depleted homemade batteries, were unable to complete the course. After another unsuccessful attempt in 2018, the team hardened the systems, acquired a wood boat hull and completed the course in 4:45, taking 3rd place overall and 1st place in the Monohull, Advanced Battery category in 2019. With additional improvements, they finished in 4:13 and again took first in 2020 in the Monohull, Advanced Battery category and 2nd place overall. In 2021, they set a new course record of 2:48 and took first place overall in a modified version of the event where teams competed individually and tracked their distance and time.

The Electric Race Boat team is also indicative of the “Learn by Doing” spirit at Washington College, as it was born out of an interest by students in the future of electric vehicles back in 2016. According to Palmer, the students wanted to make an electric vehicle that could serve as a commuter vehicle, and as a proof of concept, they converted a mountain bike to electric power.

Using that momentum, and with the Chester River in the College’s backyard, it made perfect sense to take advantage of the Waterfront Campus in the quest to better understand what it takes to develop electric vehicles.

“Being a part of the Electric Race Boat Team is really a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Stiens. “It’s an opportunity to widen your horizons and see and experience many different things. From a technical and career perspective, it gives a wealth of technical training on tools and techniques as well as design and craftsmanship theory.”

The Electric Race Boat team is part of the IDEAWORKS Innovation Center at Washington College, a platform that embraces, nurtures, and develops a mindset that employs creative and critical thinking and the ability to solve complex problems through iterative design. Students from all areas of study are invited to join and discover, create, collaborate, and innovate.

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