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October 17, 2018     Post 95
electric boating

We've been running our dinghy with a AGM battery, a small trolling motor, and a 40 watt panel for several years. The quiet almost inaudible hum and the effortless instant start up with a click of a switch are quite addictive. Range is seldom an issue since the dinghy merely goes back and forth from dock to mooring and the notion of having light powered boat pleases us.

We are far from alone in our attraction for solar electric boats. Improved battery and digital technology along with a desire for “clean” power has (pardon the pun) amped up interest in electric power afloat here on Lake Ontario and abroad.

Last summer a sun powered boat visited Oswego. She was skippered by Dr. David Borton, a recently retired professor of electrical engineering, who decided a few years ago to fight climate change with a boat. He has since launched two all electric launches and a boat building school on the Hudson is now building a 44 foot commercial launch for him that will never need to plug in to shore power. It will carry 31 passengers and is based on the proven designs of two other solely solar boats, a 25 footer and “Solar Sal” the 40 foot five ton strip planked cedar and pine canal boat, built in 2014 in a bus garage by volunteers and school children.

We visited Solar Sal to check her out. She has two banks of batteries so she can operate for up to ten hours in darkness. On a bright sunny summer day the photovoltaic panel array on her cabin top and upper deck supplies enough energy for her to run at five knots with a bit left over for charging. Even on overcast days she can proceed at reduced speed.

Borton used the canal boat as a test platform for three seasons. His first summer with Solar Sal included a run the length of the NY canal system in 2015 with four tons of cardboard for a recycler in Mechanicville. Since then she, along with a smaller sister, the Sol, have demonstrated that a solely sun powered boat that uses only light for fuel is not a stunt. It is clean, quiet, reliable, practical, and now, proven.

We sailed around Oswego Harbor with David and his wife and a volunteer crew man. It was a brisk breezy day but the launch handled the minor swell in the harbor and the wind with aplomb. She's powered by twin Torqueedo electric motors so with the torque and two props she's quite maneuverable. Borton’s website claims that at today's prices the twin motors and panels will cost less than a comparable diesel installation for his boat. And once set up, the motors and batteries are virtually maintenance free for many hours. No fuel or oil filters to change, and no worries about water or bugs in the diesel tank either. Plus the classic good looks of a sleek sea kindly cruising hull that cuts through the water with effortless ease.

The New York Canal Corp electrified a buoy tender a few years ago and we’ve heard after initial skepticism it’s well liked by the crew. It certainly would be a lot quieter than the old diesel! We also encountered a solar /diesel “hybrid” canal cruiser last summer. “Dragonfly” had done the Loop up the coast through the Great Lakes and down to the Gulf with the set up. There are now bolt on units for sailboat auxiliaries capable of pushing a ten ton displacement boat at hull speed.

Some very large vessels are now being built with electric propulsion. Several ferries have been put into service in Scandinavia that are nearly “emission free”. (Much of the power feeding their grid originates from hydro power). The Internet informs me that China recently launched a battery powered barge capable of carrying 2000 tons of cargo.

We recently installed a couple of100 watt panels on the stern rail of our 23 foot sailboat and are testing a 24 volt electric set up with a large trolling motor for this 3000 pound boat.

Range is limited, but we’re thinking extended cruising under power might happen with the aid of the Honda generator we bought a few years ago. Stay tuned for more information as we proceed with our own version of light powered boating.

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