Aug 12, 2016

How to Solarize Your Sailboat

On August 7, I saw this sleek looking sailboat with solar
strips by St. Mary's College of Maryland
For the last few months, I've been spending my nights and weekends thinking of ways to incorporate solar panels on a sailboat and it's not as easy as you might think. 

The solar has to blend into all of the moving parts. The sails and ropes are constantly moving back and forth across the deck. Anything that gets in the way of their powerful movements will be ripped off and damage the boat.

The elements also want to destroy your expensive panels. Think of tropical storm category waves and wind--they could easily tear off a panel. 

In addition to the equipment and the elements, you have to consider the movement of the crew. Panels could cause serious injury. If a panel is poorly placed, a sailor could easily fall onto its sharp corner and go overboard. 

This boat with 3 solar panels and wind turbine
is moored in the Gangplank Marina in SW DC
I took the picture above right after the 2016 St. Mary's Governor's Cup of a boat that has found a way to integrate solar strips on top of the cabin and keep them out of the way of the sails and sailors. Though these strips are space-efficient, they don't produce that much electricity. I generously estimate that these six 3-foot long strips could produce a maximum of 240 watts at any given time. Remember that one incandescent light bulb is 60 watts.

To get a better idea of how little usable room there is for solar on a sailboat, look right. This picture is of a 35' sailboat. That's a boat that could easily sleep 6 people and it probably weighs 11,000 pounds. For all intents and purposes, it's a yacht. However, you will see that it's only able to accommodate three small panels. They could power some on-board equipment such as lights and a small fan but nothing like navigation equipment or an electric motor. This boat relies on its diesel engine to produce the power it needs.

At Vittoria Energy Expedition, we're working on safely powering a boat to sail to Cuba in the Fall of 2016. We have mounted two 260 watt panels on a super-structure on the stern (back) of the boat. This structure was constructed from aluminum tubing that we welded to fit our boat. It's positioned far enough back that it doesn't interfere with our team's movement, ropes, cables, or sails.

In addition to the two big panels on the back, we have two more angled off the sides of the cabin. These will see a lot less sun but are easy to remove in case of a storm or damage.

Finally, we will be adding a 450 watt wind turbine off of the stern (port side).

All of this energy is stored in a bank of batteries in the hull of the boat. The bank weighs over 500 pounds and requires monitoring and charge controlling--we have to make sure that the electricity the panels create and that our equipment draws interacts with the batteries at the same voltage. Otherwise, the batteries damage and we're left on the high seas with a lot of extra weight and zero power.

In terms of meeting our boat's energy demand, at their best, these panels can generate 1 kilowatt of energy per hour. During the Caribbean Fall, there will be just under 12 hours of sunlight--enough to power the lights, fans, cell phones, navigation equipment, and electric motor on the boat.

Me and Vittoria teammate Chad Johnson after completing our
support structure and solar install (not pictured, Nate Sermonis)
Our boat has more clean energy than most. This extravagant solar array is for demonstration as much as it is for energy needs. Our mission as a 501(c)3 is to educate the American public about clean energy. What better way than a sailboat--a floating classroom that already harnesses the power of the wind. With the right conditions, Vittoria could operate indefinitely, an infinity machine.

To learn more about our project, check out or email me at

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