Skimming across a man-made lake 300 kilometers southwest of Sydney, the twin-hulled Marjorie K looked like an exotic, overgrown waterbug. The resemblance grew as her crew manipulated the 7-meter boat’s “wings” – long, broad, lightweight modules covered with waterproofed solar cells. Each cell generated electricity just as a solar cell in an everyday pocket calculator does; by adjusting the wings’ angle to the sun, the crew gathered more energy for their craft’s electric motor.
But these wings weren’t just solar collectors. Raised perpendicular to the water, they caught the breeze like a sail, allowing the catamaran to use the combined power of sun and wind to leave competitors behind at the 1997 Second International Solar and Advanced Technology Boat Race in Canberra, Australia’s capital. As the boat’s lead widened, however, the wind died down and the Marjorie K was forced to rely solely on its solar cells and batteries. The boat’s support team was nervous – it was the first trial under race conditions. But to spectators on the shore, the Marjorie K appeared to pick up the pace.
A couple of human, rather than technological, errors earned the Marjorie K an extra lap and cost her first place at the finish line. (The captain was penalized for tacking too close to a race buoy and banging into another boat.) But despite these glitches, the Marjorie K – one of more than 40 participants in the all-solar regatta – won the $10,000 prize for Most Innovative Vessel (currently worth about $6,300 US). David Gaul, one of the race’s judges, was impressed with the boat’s unusual combination of wind and solar power. “The movable wing design allows you to do two things simultaneously: take advantage of the wind, and get the absolute best alignment of the panels to the sun. Just look at her,” he adds. “She’s easily the most innovative boat. You don’t see too many Marjorie Ks running around the world.”
If this unusual vessel’s inventor has his way, however, that will soon change. The Marjorie K is the contrivance, passion and obsession of Australian physician Robert Dane – she is also the prototype for a fleet of “Solar Sailors” Dane hopes to build. He envisions a number of incarnations of the environmentally friendly vessel: ferries and sightseeing boats for busy urban rivers and harbors, pleasure cruisers for ecologically fragile reefs and bays. By combining new designs, off-the-shelf technologies and cutting-edge research from labs Down Under, Dane hopes to have his first commercial Solar Sailor afloat in Sydney Harbor in time to ferry tourists during the 2000 Olympics.