World’s largest solar-powered boat takes on the Gulf of Aden

17 Feb 2012

TÛRANOR PlanetSolar, pictured near Phuket. Image courtesy of PlanetSolar

Now 508 days into its 18-month world circumnavigation challenge, PlanetSolar, the world’s largest solar-powered boat, is continuing to make strides. After docking in Abu Dhabi for the World Future Energy Summit at the end of January, the crew is now taking on the Gulf of Aden, a waterway that’s notorious for sea piracy.

The double-hulled boat is circumnavigating the globe under a Swiss flag and measures close to 102 feet in length and 50 feet in width. Its four-man crew is aiming to demonstrate that high-performance solar mobility on water is possible.

The full name of the boat is TÛRANOR PlanetSolar, with TÛRANOR deriving from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It translates as ‘the power of the sun’ and ‘victory’.

PlanetSolar first set off on its solar challenge in September 2010 when it departed Monaco. Since then, it has already crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the Panama Canal, the Pacific Ocean, docking in cities such as Miami, Cancun, Manila, Brisbane and Hong Kong, as well as Tonga, New Caledonia and the Galapagos Islands.

After stopping off for a few days in Doha, Qatar, for Christmas, the crew crossed the Persian Gulf and reached Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates just in time for the World Future Energy Summit. Their ultimate aim is to reach Monte Carlo sometime this spring, likely in late April.

TÛRANOR PlanetSolar pictured docked in Abu Dhabi

TÛRANOR PlanetSolar pictured docked in Abu Dhabi. Image courtesy of PlanetSolar

Since leaving Abu Dhabi, the crew have decided not to log their whereabouts for security reasons. PlanetSolar is aiming to reach the Red Sea at the start of March.

Gulf of Aden and sea piracy

The Gulf of Aden is an extension of the Indian Ocean. Located between Africa and Asia, it forms the natural separation between the countries of Somalia and Yemen. Gulf of Aden waters flow into the Red Sea through the Bab el Mandeb Strait. As the Gulf provides an outlet to the west for Persian Gulf oil, it’s now one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, making piracy a problem especially for sailing boats and yachts.

On 3 February last the crew posted their last log on why they are staying silent for the next while: “We have always updated our log book on a regular basis, but for the first time since 27 September 2010, we will have to remain silent and stay out of sight as much as possible for our own sake and the sake of our solar adventure. Hence, starting tomorrow, there will be no daily blog post and PlanetSolar’s location will not be displayed on our website anymore until further notice. We will see again at the beginning of March when we will be back in safe seas: in the warm waters of the Red Sea. We will then have many adventures and memories to tell and to share with you!”

TÛRANOR PlanetSolar crew members rest aboard the solar powered boat, after it reached Hong Kong on 15 August 2011. Image courtesy of PlanetSolar

TÛRANOR PlanetSolar crew members rest aboard the solar powered boat, after it reached Hong Kong on 15 August 2011. Image courtesy of PlanetSolar

The Planet Solar boat is entirely dependent on the sun’s energy to power the boat, so the crew has to constantly aim to optimise the ship’s route and speed in light of to sunshine duration and weather forecasts.

  • On its deck, the boat features solar panels from Solon AG in Berlin. They were installed using solar cells, supplied by the Californian solar energy giant SunPower. A total of 825 modules, equipped with 38,000 individual photovoltaic cells, cover a surface area of 537 sq metres (including side riggers and rear wings) on the deck.
  • These solar cells capture energy, which is then stored in six blocks containing 12 batteries each – 648 cells use maintenance-free lithium-ion technology from GAIA in Nordhausen. Each of the six blocks weighs less than two tonnes.
  • The boat is driven by two contra-rotating carbon propellers.
  • To help with navigation, the crew is using a “sun route software and forecast system”, which gives them information on the expected weather, wave height, clouds and sun intensity.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic