Solar-powered ship to stop in St. John’s

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Emissions-free vessels are still a rarity on the high seas

The grey, foggy days off Newfoundland and Labrador are less than ideal conditions for sailing on the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar.

Even so, the world’s largest solar-powered vessel will be braving local waters, making a stop in St. John’s harbour later this summer.

The ship’s visit is tied to the PlanetSolar DeepWater expedition, a research mission gathering data on the climate-regulating Gulf Stream. The unique vessel will allow researchers to collect data without any potential taint from emissions.

The ship was designed by Craig Loomes of New Zealand and its name, Tûranor, means “power of the sun” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagined language of Elvish. Launched in Germany in 2010, it is powered by 516 square metres of solar panels atop its light, catamaran frame. The panels feed energy into a six-lithium-ion block batteries.

An electrical engineer sails as part of the ship’s crew.

“We need that because many of the installations are quite complicated,” said Capt. Gérard d’Aboville, the man at the helm, who spoke to The Telegram this week while docked in Boston.


Let the sun shine

D’Aboville said factoring in the need for gathering solar power can complicate his work.

“Usually we take care of wind, current, state of the sea, but now we have to take care also of the sun— so I do receive some special charts from our meteorological office, which is Météo France, and I have the forecast of sun for the next five days, and of course I do modify my route according to this forecast,” he said.

There is a backup in case of emergency.

“Insurance did oblige us to have a generator which works on gasoline and diesel. But the boat already has been circulating all around the world and this generator was never used,” he said.

There are currently five permanent crew aboard, with a scientific team of three. Researchers participating in the 2013 expedition have been switching out along the ship’s route, sharing in various legs of the voyage to allow larger numbers to participate.

Leading the scientific work is Martin Beniston, a climatologist with the University of Geneva in Switzerland and a member of a panel on Climate Change awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2007.

D’Aboville has been aboard the research vessel since April, sailing from France, down past Morocco, across the Atlantic to St. Maarten and then up to Miami in the United States.

The research work officially started in Miami, heading North along a zig-zag pattern to New York, Boston and, soon, into Canadian waters.

With some program changes and a stop in Halifax, the ship is expected in St. John’s between Aug. 3 and 6.

The boat will leave here and sail on towards Iceland and Norway.

“I hope we’ll have sun to reach

St. John’s. Not too much fog or mist, because this is not ideal for our boat,” d’Aboville said with a short laugh.

He said he is not fearful of a North Atlantic crossing, reflecting his past experience of rowing solo from the Cape Cod area to France, in a boat of just over five metres.


A future in solar power

The Tûranor PlanetSolar is 31 metres long.

“It’s pretty unusual,” said Winston Pynn, an instructor of naval architecture at the Marine Institute in St. John’s.

He said the boat is a representation of the efforts being made worldwide to develop alternative power sources to diesel.

“Everyone’s looking at — not just naval architects and shipbuilders — looking at alternate means, other than fossil fuels, for powering things. But so far the tech has not caught up to the requirements of the amazing amount of power needed to push a ship through the water,” he said.

Solar panels are being used to help cut down on the use of fossil fuels, such as in Nissan’s hybrid cargo vessel Nichioh Maru.

However, “there’s just so much power required (for large ships) that, at the moment, fossil fuels are really the only thing, other than nuclear, that give us enough concentrated power to be able to move them,” Pynn said.

The surface space required for solar panels, relative to their power output, remains an issue.

As an example, Pynn said covering the entire 362 metre-long Oasis of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, with solar panels would not give you enough to power the ship forward.

D’Aboville also said he doesn’t think a shift to solar power will be happening within the next few years.

“The boat is a perfect ambassador for the solar technology and the boat has been able to go around the world, but it’s quite big and heavy,” he said.

“It should prove that you can use solar energy, but I don’t think this energy would be enough to power the commercial boats. You cannot go fast enough ... so let’s consider the boat an ambassador of solar energy, but I would not dare to say that tomorrow most of vessels would be powered by the sun.”

Organizations: University of Geneva, Marine Institute

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Gulf Stream, New Zealand Germany France Miami Switzerland Nobel Morocco Atlantic St. Maarten United States New York Boston Halifax Iceland Norway Cape Cod Caribbean

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Recent comments

  • June
    July 03, 2013 - 09:24

    I'm sure everything will go perfect...looking forward to seeing your ship..enjoy and stay safe...praying for SUN..♥

  • Ed
    June 30, 2013 - 17:20

    If we like it and want to keep it we will just make the sun disappear :-)

  • California Pete from NFLD
    June 28, 2013 - 20:11

    Hope it don't get stuck in St.John's like the Russian cruse ship after all there is not a whole lot of sun there