Unlike most Olympic aspirants, Dane hasn’t been training all his life for his moment of glory in Sydney. Far from it. At 39, he has no formal education in engineering or boat design, and until a couple of years ago he was the local doctor in the coastal village of Ulladulla, 230 kilometers south of Sydney. But Dane’s imagination has been captivated since childhood by the idea of siphoning electricity from the sun’s rays. He first glimpsed a solar cell in a magazine article about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space satellites. “I was fascinated,” he recalls. “The idea of solar panels was absolutely miraculous. I became obsessed.” Today, almost all conversations with him inevitably double back to the subject of solar power.
Dane has even found inspiration in his biomedical training and practice. He based his design for the hinge-and-pivot mechanism of the boat’s wings, for example, on his observations of the human shoulder. The idea of solar-paneled wings hatched when Dane learned the evolutionary theory that insects’ wings evolved from solar collectors. And his years in medical school at Sydney University primed him to see the advantage of coupling wind and solar energy. A longtime sailor and windsurfer, Dane knew that even a small increase in wind speed can dramatically increase a boat’s energy. Like a car speeding down the interstate, a boat creates its own breeze. Proper positioning of the sails can add this so-called “relative wind” to the true wind and boost the sailing speed. Growing weary of the late hours of a country doctor, Dane began to dream of building a sailboat equipped with a solar-powered electric motor that would create more relative wind. “From med school, I knew that anytime you see that kind of positive feedback loop in nature, you should take advantage of it,” he explains.
The idea is an old one. Early steamboats operated under a combination of two power sources – wind and steam – but both were seldom operated at the same time.”People do motor sail,” Dane notes, “but sailboat owners generally don’t like the smell, noise or pollution caused by a fossil fuel engine. They call them ‘stinkboats.’” A sailboat with an electric engine, he reasoned, would provide the best of both worlds.
His interest spurred along by watching the first International Solar and Advanced Technology Boat Race in 1996, Dane sketched out a design for a wing that would serve both as solar collector and sail. He built a model of the key joint mechanism from pipe cleaners and his child’s Lego blocks, then showed it to some boat builders at Iain Murray & Associates, a leading Sydney-based competitive yacht design firm. As he recalls with studied casualness, “I went down there with beer in hand and said, ‘What do you think?’”
The designers’ response was cautiously positive. They made some calculations and said the idea was feasible, so Dane wrote up a 35-page prospectus and started to raise money for the project. Ulladulla local Marjorie Kendall, a farmer and fellow solar enthusiast, was so impressed that she invested half of the $130,000 cost of a prototype boat. With the money from Kendall in hand, Dane quit his medical practice and enlisted a diverse crew of friends and neighbors that included a surfboard maker, a model-train hobbyist and a champion sailboat captain. Together, they built the Marjorie K in only 82 days.