A team of matric boys from Port Rex Technical High School in East London sailed home with R10,000 in cash and a pirate’s chest of other treasure, during the weekend’s inaugural Nelson Mandela University Solar Boat Competition in Gqeberha on Saturday, 4 March. 


Nelson Mandela University, in collaboration with the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority (MerSETA), introduced the solar boat competition for Technical and Vocational, Education and Training (TVET) colleges and technical high schools this year, the first time since post-COVID. 
The event exposed learners and students to solar technologies and helped them develop essential skills to design and manufacture a simple DIY solar boat. The goal of the three-hour endurance race was to cover the longest distance in the time limit, with sunlight the only power source allowed for propulsion. Nelson Mandela University Mechanical Engineering principal lecturer Karl du Preez, Director of the Advanced Mechatronic Technology Centre (AMTC), said one of the main objectives was to develop skills in the manufacturing and engineering sector. 
There were nine teams competing: PE TVET College and two teams from EC Midlands TVET College, and high schools Port Rex in East London, Daniel Pienaar and McCarthy from Kariega, and Gqeberha schools Otto du Plessis, Newton Tech High and Gelvandale High School. 
Held at the EP Power Boat Club in Holland Park, with the iconic Nelson Mandela Bay stadium in the background, race day was clear and sunny – a precondition for a race powered by the sun. “Solar technology has picked up tremendously, particularly with regards to the electricity challenges in the country,” said Du Preez, referring to the energy crisis facing South Africa. With innovation and environmental stewardship key values for Mandela University, the event was also about developing skills and interest in these areas among the youngsters.  
“Which kid doesn’t want to build a racing car, or a solar powered boat, or fly a drone?” asked Du Preez. “We’ve created an environment where the kids learn through play, and they don’t even realise they are learning the technology as they are having so much fun. 
“We are not here to tell you to get solar, we’re here to help create skilled technicians and technologists in the field because companies are increasingly needing people with these skills.”  
Port Rex teacher Mark Hammond noted, “the University really supports us in giving advice and encouragement not only with the event but also at the school”. MerSETA Client Relations Manager in the Eastern Cape, Zwelethemba Ngayeka, said: “This is one of those projects that we want young people to be interested in, particularly technical high schools that resonate with our sector of engineering and manufacturing, because boat building is part of our sector skills plan.
“We want young people to get rounded knowledge. It is great that they can be here and enjoy the racing, but we also want them to be interested in the architecture and manufacturing of boat building, as well as servicing and repairing boats.” 
Ngayeka said the partnership between MerSETA and Nelson Mandela University’s AMTC stretched back to 2009. “This is a massive project in the Eastern Cape because we have multiple projects with Nelson Mandela, and it is our apex university in terms of higher education institutions. Our executives strongly support the work that MerSETA and the university are involved in.” 
Collaboration and group-thinking are key to the ground-breaking work of the University’s Renewable Energy Research Group (RERG), a research entity of the AMTC which co-organised the event. RERG’s Professor Russell Phillips said the event was “perfect” to show budding engineers what might lie ahead in this career field, as well as spread awareness of alternate sources of power. 
“Once you have experienced the power of solar to push you in a car, or on a boat, you will have a better understanding of its potential,” said Phillips. 
And the youngsters dived in for the experience. Newton Technical High School matric pupil Simbarashe, Njanji, 17, said it was fun: “I enjoyed it a lot and it taught me how to adapt.” His classmate Victor Mahlatini, 17, agreed. “It teaches us how to think out of the box – and also how important solar power is.” 
EC Midlands College student Siyamthana Phillips said that that although they did not win, it went “pretty well. When it came to building the boat, we had a bond from the start and I am very proud of our team!”  The TVET college which had two boats in the race, did at least sail home with the prize for best spirit on the day. 
But it was the Buffalo City boys who sailed home the winners with R10,000 in cash, trophies and several other individual prizes, plus bragging rights. With 18-year-old matric pupil Antonio Goddard as skipper, the Border team pipped the opposition past the checkered flag by completing 21 laps, more than any team except the University’s. 
“It was an amazing success, we came with a humble attitude because we just wanted to compete and it was such a shock to come in first,” said Goddard. “We started building the boat in late November but had to stop over exams. We resumed early this year and worked tirelessly till we got to this point.” 
Port Rex hopes to be back in December to defend its title – but the competition will be fierce as Nelson Mandela University hopes to be able to throw the entry net wider, drawing in rural and non-technical schools.