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Solar Boat Bliss


Sun21 recently landed in New York City after crossing the Atlantic Ocean.


By Susan Cosier



Docked at North Cove marina along the Hudson River in New York City, the first solar-powered catamaran floats calmly after six months of sailing across the Atlantic. On Monday, Captain Michel Thonney stood on board. With a broad smile, he gave tours of the boat just hours before he and the rest of his crew finally left the boat they called home. 

From a distance, the solar vessel, called sun21, looks like any other 46-foot catamaran sitting in the cove. But unlike other boats, sun21 is powered by photovoltaic cells that cover its roof. Designed by Swiss ship builder and crew member Mark Wüst, the cells can provide enough energy for the vessel to travel five to six knots an hour, about the average speed of most sailing yachts. On its 7,000-mile journey across the ocean, the boat generated 2,000-kilowatt hours of solar energy and didn’t use an ounce of oil. Everything down to the refrigerator runs on sunlight.

“It’s an experiment, it’s not pleasure,” said Thonney as he was showing his bunking quarters. But as he grinned, it was obvious he was enjoying himself.

The idea to design a completely solar-powered boat started when two dreams came together, explains Martin Vosseler, another one of the crew members. “The boat builder had the dream to cross the Atlantic and we had a dream to cross the Atlantic with no fuel and at the same time promote solar energy,” he says.

In December 2005, a group of individuals formed the TransAtlantic21 Association. Their goal was simple: to pay for and promote the trip. Working with a Swiss-based association—also called sun21—that, according to its website, “advocates efficient energy use and promotes renewable energies,” and MW-Line SA, a solar-boat manufacturer, TransAtlantic21 turned the idea into reality.

Once the boat was built, it traveled from Basal, Switzerland to New York City, docking in the Netherlands, Spain, the Canary Islands, Martinique, and Miami along the way.

In addition to Thonney, Wüst, and Vosseler, a doctor and president of TransAtlantic21, the crew comprised Beat von Scarpatetti, a historian and president of the "Club of the Carfree", and David Senn, Professor of Zoology and Ocean Biology at the University of Basel, who collected plankton samples for research. Together, they experienced rough seas, evaded a huge Chinese tanker, and scraped algae, seaweed, and shells from the boat’s hull to prevent the hitchhiking organisms from slowing the boat.

Despite the obstacles, the crew succeeded in bringing attention to the potential for solar energy. “There are concrete and specific projects from this trip already,” says Vosseler. In Martinique, Charles Williams, the Carib chief of the Kalinago people, expressed interest in developing solar energy for his territory. In Miami, the mayor promised to introduce an initiative to attract solar boats to the city’s harbor.

Not only did sun21’s crew impress the people they visited, they also impressed the boating world. "This is a wonderful feat,” wrote Sarah Black, Project Manager for The Green Blue, a joint environment initiative by the Royal Yachting Association and the British Marine Federation, in an email. “This voyage proves how far solar power generators have come in the last few years."      

Plans are already in the works to build a bigger, more efficient solar boat that will circumnavigate the globe. Vosseler estimates that it will take about two years to complete. When it’s finished, another crew will be able to experience what he felt on the voyage: “You have a unifying idea and a unifying cause. For me that is a beautiful metaphor for humanity—that we have this unifying challenge to overcome climate change, and that may lead to conflict resolutions.”