PlanetSolar's Turanor, the world's largest solar-powered boat, is about to complete its record-breaking 18-month journey across the globe. The Swiss vessel, which, from the docks, looks like a futuristic speed boat outfitted for a NASCAR race—the hull doubles as a billboard for the trip's sponsor, the watchmaker Candino. From above, it's a sprawling solar-paneled space shuttle. When the Turanor pulls into Monaco in three months, it will be the first engine-propelled boat to make an around-the-world voyage fueled by sunlight alone.
Traveling an average of 4-5 knots, the ship has traversed the equator—where the sun is strongest and shines most consistently—and stopped by a number of ports so the crew could spread the word of their undertaking. They took off from Monaco and pushed westward, anchoring in Miami, Panama, the Galapagos, Hong Kong, and plenty of other ports along the way.
Today, the Turanor is docked in Abu Dhabi, where its crew is showing off the photovoltaic-laden ship to the curious crowds at the annual World Future Energy Summit. I climbed aboard to see the clean-powered beast for myself, and to chat with the crew about their adventures thus far. First, I'll introduce you to Raphaël Domjan, captain and founder of PlanetSolar. Here, he explains his crew's mission:
As of now, the boat has been at sea for 478 days. Domjan explains that though they had to equip the boat with two backup diesel engines for insurance reasons ("They thought we were cuckoo!", the navigator laughed), they've never had to turn them on. The 703 solar panels that cover nearly every inch of the boat's deck generate power to spare, and the crew has learned to manage their speed so as to keep the giant lithium ion battery at least 30-40% charged at all times.
The solar power system has never once broken down, and there have been no technical difficulties to speak of. Domjan reports that they only had to change course once, to dodge a nasty storm, and that it's been no trouble at all keeping the boat powered. The biggest hurdle the crew faced regarding the solar power was outside the Galapagos Islands, when birds bombarded the ship's solar arrays with droppings; after a quick cleanup, they were good to go. The batteries never faltered either, leaving the crew to enjoy a pretty technical difficulty-free, once-in-a-lifetime jaunt around the world.
All this amounts to one of the grandest eco-stunts yet undertaken; it's on par with the Solar Impulse, the sun-powered airplane that stayed airborne for 26 hours last year. These kinds of stunts, that demonstrate to the world the power and high functionality of renewable energy technology, are still pretty important. Especially in the U.S., many regard renewable power as an unproven technology, as a still-distant prospect that needs further research and incubation. These feats can help move public opinion away from that faulty perception.
And unlike personal stunts ostensibly designed to advocate low-impact living—a genre skillfully lampooned by Elizabeth Kolbert—these adventures inspire awe (or at least provoke curiosity) rather than attract derision.
The crew told us that as they would pass tiny fishing boats in Latin America and Southeast Asia, fishermen would approach them and offer them their catch as a gift. When the Turanor reaches port, crowds gather and the media are on the scene. Novelty and excitement follows the crew around the world, and for good reason. A giant solar boat itself may not hold the key to tomorrow's clean energy solutions—but it offers up some pretty convincing evidence that they're right around the corner.