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Photovoltaic yacht circles the globe

After nearly two years at sea, the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar has become the first photovoltaic boat to sail around the world.

All sailing ships make use of the sun's power via wind, so by some reckoning, Ferdinand Magellan’s ship Victoria earned the title of the world's first solar-powered ship to circumnavigate the earth when it returned to Spain in 1522.

The MS Tûranor PlanetSolar took a slightly different tack, however, with motors powered by 500 square metres of photovoltaic panels.

Swiss Raphaël Domjan  has just returned to Monaco after a 19-month journey aboard and told Fast Company the most hair-raising part was crossing the Gulf of Aden, a notorious place for kidnapping and hijacking.

"It was one month with soldiers onboard, and a lot of stress," he says. "We were at 5 knots with the solar energy, and we were between Yemen and Somalia. In Yemen, with the soldiers and guns we had, we could have gone to jail. And in Somalia, we could be hostages, and eat rice for one year."

The crew of four followed the equator as closely as possible to make the most of the sunlight, across the Atlantic to Miami, and then down through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and eventually through the Suez Canal. 

It stopped in many different locations to show off the vessel, and while Domjan says the boat could have gone nonstop, it probably would have taken a different route in that case.

Domjan wants to spread the word that solar power can be used in many different boats if inventors put their mind to designing them.

"We can use solar boats for diving boats and tourism. Not everywhere but in many places," he says.

"It’s very nice because you have no noise and no vibration. To see the wildlife and the dolphins, it’s much better than on a normal motor boat."

Tûranor PlanetSolar

  • Type: Luxury power yacht
  • Length: 31 metres
  • Displacement: 85 metric tons
  • Crew: 4
  • Passenger capacity: 200
  • Propulsion: Two 10kW and two 60kW permanent magnet electric motors powered by 500 square metres of photovoltaic panels rated at 93kW
  • Speed: Average 7.5 knots, max 14 knots.