When we first conceived our plan to sail around the world, my wife, Jamie, purchased half a dozen volumes on the subject, including three by Jimmy Cornell, the self-proclaimed dean of long-distance cruising. While the various authors had diverse opinions, the one thing they agreed upon was the need for alternative energy sources other than running one’s diesel to charge the batteries.
In spite of the groundswell of popularity surrounding alternative energy on yachts, I was not convinced. Having done a lot of long-distance racing and multiple deliveries between 1978-1998 in California and Mexico, solar, wind, and hydro-generators were not on my radar. On a typical Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas race of 800 miles or so, we might have 8 guys on a 46’ Swan, for instance, using refrigeration, lights, navigation instruments, and radios around the clock, and run the diesel to charge batteries maybe twice daily for an hour or so. A larger boat, like a Swan 59, might have a diesel generator, but people who raced generally shied away from adding such a heavy piece of machinery, even if it was a more fuel-efficient way to produce electricity. Also, in those days, the alternative energy industry was in its infancy.
For months prior to our departure for the Marquesas Islands, my wife begged me to look into solar panels for “Nor’easter.” I had other priorities, such as installing a new navigation package, stripping the bottom paint and recoating, adding a bimini, replacing our stove and stereo system, and rehabilitating the water maker. By the time all that was completed, I couldn’t get anyone to install solar panels before our departure date, and decided that since people have been sailing around the world for centuries without alternative energy, we could too. Besides, the thought of some big ugly panels defacing the elegant, clean lines of my Swan offended my sensibilities, even if it was a practical idea. My son was of one mind with my wife, but realized how we simply had no time for another project, so we opted for a couple five-gallon jerry cans to supplement our sixty-six gallon fuel supply. Travis had created a fuel use spreadsheet prior to our departure, and we meticulously tracked our engine hours and RPM’s, so we knew theoretically, according to engine specs, our cumulative consumption. About half way to the Marquesas, our fuel gauge was showing 33% remaining in the tank, but Travis was sure there was much more. However, we figured we should economize, as we were having to charge batteries by running our engine much too often, and the fuel gauge was bouncing close to the “red zone” of 1/4 tank. At that level, any excessive heel angle could slosh the fuel away from the pick-up line, causing the engine to suck air and die.
To be safe, we consolidated food from our two refrigerators into one, turned off our navigation system except for periodic location fixes, and began hand-steering instead of running the autopilot. Since the winds were pretty strong and seas large, the auto-helm would have been severely tested anyway. That said, spinning the wheel while surfing down waves for five-hour watches was a bit tiring, particularly because when constantly on a port tack as we were, all one’s weight is on the right leg (coincidentally, home of my new surgically-replaced knee). However, as we neared Hiva Oa and the seas flattened a bit, we were able to open the fuel tank and discover over 25% remained, just as Travis had calculated. While feeling pretty smug about making a 2800 mile passage with no alternative energy, once we got to Papeete Marina, I had a rude awakening. Our boat has 110 V shore power, and short of rewiring the boat with a large 220 V to 110 V transformer, there is no way for us to plug into the European 220 V shore power on most marinas outside North America. For the first few days, we periodically ran our engine in the slip, creating an exhaust cloud which was understandably not a big hit with our neighbors. Two days after we arrived, I bit the bullet, walked to the local solar panel store, and met Vetea, the proprietor, who told me I’d need to measure the distance from the panels to where I would mount the charge controller, and also from that unit to my batteries, and he would make up the appropriate cables. He also sketched me a wiring diagram for the installation on some graph paper. When I begged him to name an electrician I could pay to do the job, he informed me that nobody installs these panels but the yacht owners, it’s such a simple process. I’ve heard that before, and one thing I have learned about any project on board is that they are NEVER simple.
This began yet another rather frantic but ultimately successful father and son bonding experience. I walked the mile back to the marina (in the sweltering sunshine), and Travis and I ran a tape throughout the boat, got the measurements, and added 10% to be safe. Again I headed over to Veteo’s store, and bought two 100 Watt flexible panels I knew would fit on top or our bimini, plus a charge controller. He made up the appropriate cables, and dropped me off at the marina on his way to pick up his daughter from school. That evening, one of our cruising friends, John, who formerly owned a solar panel installation business, told me we’d need at least 3 panels to become close to energy efficient, so the next morning I went back to my solar guy and bought another one. Again, he took me back to the marina, where Travis and I, after a busy morning hauling out our boat to renew the rudder seals, decided to complete the installation. We had everything connected and the panels bungee-tied to the bimini about an hour after sunset.
The next morning shortly after sunrise, low and behold, our voltmeter was climbing, but we couldn’t see how much amperage (current) was coming from the panels. Our wonderful friend John, who had graciously become indepsensable party to this eadeavor, told us we needed to disconnect the negative lead from the battery and put it on a “bus” terminal that was connected to our boat’s electrical panel, but that would require new, longer cables. Again I trekked back up Papeete’s busy main drag to the solar guy, who informed me that the 3 panels I had would require a larger charge controller than the one he had initially provided, and that I should disconnect them immediately or there might be serious consequences. He kindly offered a credit for the original one, but didn’t give me a ride back to the marina.
Travis and I, having worked dawn to dark the previous day, had agreed not to labor at all this day, but with our new system potentially in jeopardy, we sprang into action, dragged new cables through the bilges, removed the old controller, installed the new one, and soon were making 7-10 amps in the mid-afternoon sun. We were elated. While the panels look rather funny atop our bimini, one must be 8’ tall to see them, so this is tolerable for me. We haven’t run our engine in 2 days, and we didn’t have to rewire the boat to accept the marina’s 220 V shore power. Now Travis, who has graciously said “I told you so” only a few times since our installation, wants me to buy a hydro-generator to tow behind the boat and make even more power while underway. On overcast days, this would be an important addition to our inventory. I’m tempted….