So­lar power was the only op­tion for liveaboard cou­ple striv­ing for com­plete sus­tain­abil­ity


Silent run­ning on the Thames with so­lar-pow­ered wide­beam

Ryan and I met in a ma­rina where we both had tra­di­tional diesel-pow­ered boats, but we had a green vi­sion, we wanted to build an eco-boat.

Be­ing on the Thames at Hamp­ton and close to na­ture made us think more about the im­pact of diesel en­gines in terms of both noise and pol­lu­tion. Given the rapid ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy for elec­tric ve­hi­cles on our roads, we fig­ured that there must be a more sus­tain­able way to be on our rivers and canals too.

While my back­ground is in tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion, mak­ing nat­u­ral his­tory pro­grammes for clients such as the BBC, ITV and Na­tional Geo­graphic, Ryan is a for­mer South African Navy diver with more than 20 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the con­struc­tion trade.

Hav­ing spent many years liv­ing on boats over many years he de­voted plenty of time to re­search­ing and test­ing var­i­ous tech­ni­cal and lo­gis­ti­cal el­e­ments of so­lar elec­tric boat de­sign be­fore our boat, The Sun­Flower, was launched.

It’s a 65ft wide­beam and took a year from steel­work to fit-out and is bristling with tech­nol­ogy. There’s no diesel en­gine and no gas on­board, so when we are out cruis­ing the Thames it

uses 100 per­cent re­new­able en­ergy. While we put sus­tain­abil­ity at the heart of this build we didn’t want to com­pro­mise on style and we be­lieve the in­te­rior is un­like any other boat cur­rently on the wa­ter.

The ar­ray of 20 pho­to­voltaic so­lar pan­els on the roof are linked to pro­vide max­i­mum so­lar en­ergy out­put. They feed two so­lar con­trollers which charge the bat­ter­ies and power the twin elec­tric mo­tors that en­able the boat to cruise al­most silently at a com­fort­able three knots.

At the heart of the boat there’s a large bank of fork­lift bat­ter­ies which can store 96 kWh of en­ergy and pro­vide ten hours of con­tin­u­ous cruis­ing with­out any day­light, or 18 days of do­mes­tic sup­ply. The bat­ter­ies are topped up ev­ery day by the so­lar pan­els.

The in­no­va­tions don’t stop there: the in­te­rior floor is made of 18 tons of con­crete with un­der­floor pipes that are heated by the stove which burns re­new­able smoke­less eco logs and also sup­plies a hot wa­ter stor­age cylin­der. Added to that there’s triple-glaz­ing, a heat re­cov­ery sys­tem, rain­wa­ter fil­tra­tion and a no-flush toi­let.

The jour­ney wasn’t all plain sail­ing, though, and we ran into some neg­a­tive re­sponses as we sought to de­sign a boat pow­ered only by so­lar en­ergy.

“I started look­ing for al­ter­na­tives but there was sim­ply noth­ing out there that didn’t rely on diesel,” says Ryan. “Some boats have so­lar pan­els for do­mes­tic sup­ply but there was noth­ing on the mar­ket that would al­low us to cruise

and live on the river with­out us­ing fos­sil fu­els, so we de­cided the only way for­ward was to build one our­selves, even though we’d never done any­thing like this be­fore. But no one could tell us how to do it and no one seemed con­fi­dent it could be done.

“Ev­ery­one kept say­ing ‘yes but what hap­pens on a cloudy day when there’s no sun? And what about the un­pre­dictable Bri­tish weather?’ I’m orig­i­nally from South Africa so I think peo­ple thought I had lost the plot.

“I re­searched all sorts of pos­si­ble so­lu­tions and I fi­nally came up with a sys­tem I felt would work, but it doesn’t stop the nag­ging doubts. What if ev­ery­one else was right and I was wrong?”

Hav­ing ac­com­plished the mis­sion to slash our car­bon foot­print, we turned our at­ten­tion to the in­te­rior, know­ing that canal and river boats can have a rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing pokey, damp and with­out enough space to swing a prover­bial cat.

Not this one. The Sun­Flower has 64 square me­tres of open-plan liv­ing space with two huge dou­ble bed­rooms, a wet-room, com­plete with bath and a huge kitchen. In fact, ev­ery­thing is large – even the stern is spa­cious with room for ten.

We wanted to cre­ate an in­side space that felt more like a home than a boat. We loved coming up with some of the clever stor­age so­lu­tions, like the wine cel­lar sunk into the con­crete floor. That’s a real surprise for vis­i­tors.

But while the in­te­rior is warm and homely, the ul­ti­mate thrill will al­ways be quiet cruis­ing along on on a one-off wide­beam – and it’s al­ready mak­ing waves.

“The look of the boat with its bright blue colour, large re­flec­tive win­dows and so­lar roof does at­tract a lot of at­ten­tion when we’re out on the Thames,” adds Ryan. “Peo­ple of­ten ask ‘is that re­ally fully so­lar pow­ered?’ and I’m so thrilled to be able to tell them that it is.”

Putting the wide in wide­beam

Open-plan liv­ing on board

Gal­ley equip­ment runs on so­lar power

Own­ers Hay­ley and Ryan

Rooftop pho­to­voltic pan­els top up bat­ter­ies

Wet room has an over­sized rain shower

Huge space for party peo­ple

Dou­ble bed lifts for ex­tra stor­age

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