It’s an odd fact of history that what’s believed to be the first nonstop cruise by a solar-electric boat from Washington state to Alaska—completed this past May and June—became a reality because of another boat built several years ago on New York’s Hudson River. And this has led to some thoughts about millionaires with lakefront property near Seattle. This is how it happened.
In spring 2017, the Hudson River Maritime Museum began construction on
Solaris, the first solar-powered commercial tour boat certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. Solaris was a Solar Sal 44 from the design headquarters of David Borton, who is based in Troy, New York, as president of Solar Sal Boats. New York-based naval architect Dave Gerr was brought in for design on the Solaris project, and Olympia, Washington-based designer Sam Devlin was asked to consult.
“I looked at the design, and I may have had a couple comments, but no real criticism,” Devlin says, adding that the project instead sparked an idea for a smaller, West Coast variation of Solaris.
“What really embraced my imagination was thinking about all the Microsoft millionaires and billionaires clustered around Seattle,” says Devlin. “There are two large lakes, where a lot of these people have waterfront homes. I was thinking that this could be really cool. They could have a nice, calm, silent afternoon cruise with their friends and families. There might be a market for a boat like this.”
Borton’s son, Alex, who lives in Bellingham, Washington, got to talking with Devlin. In 2018, at the Seattle Boat Show, they discussed whether they could have such a boat ready to display at the 2019 show. “So, we did,” says Alex, who is vice president of Solar Sal Boats. “The Solar Sal 27 was at the Seattle Boat Show in January 2019.”
The boat, named Wayward Sun, was designed to have unlimited range in daylight, cruise as long as eight hours on its battery backup and emit no gas or diesel fumes. It would also require minimal maintenance. It was a pure solar-electric boat with no backup power. Cruising speed was advertised as 4.5 to 5 knots, with a top-end of 6.5 knots.
Showgoers had two types of responses, Borton says. “First, there was lots of interest—people thought this was really cool, really neat. These people knew something about electric cars and solar panels,” he says. “There were also people who said things like, ‘Oh, that really works, huh?’ They really didn’t believe it.”
The show generated a few leads, but no sales. So, father and son started thinking about proof of concept. “Out here on the West Coast, if a boat can do the Inside Passage, it gets people’s attention,” Borton says. “They think, OK, that’s a serious boat and these are serious boaters.” A solar-electric boat test run in that part of the world was quite an idea, given that the Inside Passage is not known for being sunny. There was also the issue of the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant that during the entire stretch in Canadian waters—what turned out to be 20 days straight—the Americans could not set foot on land.
Then there was the small matter of the boat having been designed for something entirely different from long-distance cruising. Wayward Sun has a forward cabin with two berths, but no galley. The head is a Laveo, which has no holding tank and instead works like a Diaper Genie, collecting waste in bags for disposal on shore. “We never intended it to be a passagemaker or a serious cruising boat,” Devlin says. “It’s a dayboat.”
Nevertheless, on May 25, the Bortons left the dock in Bellingham and pointed
Wayward Sun’s bow north. Their only source of power was 12 flexible Solbian solar panels that provided a total of 1,730 watts, feeding into six Torqeedo 24-3500 lithium batteries to run the Torqeedo Cruise 4.0 pod drive. “People ask about the backup,” Borton says. “There was no generator or any possible fuel backup.”
At the helm, while averaging 3 to 7 knots throughout the journey, the Bortons monitored just how much power they had available, and adjusted their cruising schedule accordingly.
“With some gasoline boats, you don’t always know how much energy you are using. You know that you burn more gas the faster you go, but you really don’t know how much,” Borton says. “With an electric boat, you can see how many watts of energy are being sent to the motor. And we also can see how many watts are coming in from the sunshine. At any moment, we could see how much energy was coming in and how much was going out. We were able to decide if we wanted to use energy from the battery to run the engine faster than the energy was coming in. Or, there were times when we wanted to charge the battery, so we’d adjust the throttles so that we were still moving and charging the battery at the same time.”
On June 13, they reached Ketchikan, Alaska, and then continued farther north to Glacier Bay and Juneau. All in all, it was a 1,400-mile trip.
“I would have gone another thousand miles if I’d had the time,” Borton says. “It was an incredible adventure. We were surrounded for weeks by snowcapped mountains everywhere we looked. The wildlife was amazing: brown bears, black bears, moose, whales, sea otters, many different kinds of birds, sea lions and seals. We often had dolphins playing off our bow.”
Nobody was more relieved than Devlin that the journey through the Inside Passage went well.
“My youngest son and I, we’ve done that trip a dozen times over the years in all kinds of boats, and we just marvel at the moxie of David and Alex,” Devlin says. “This is a big trip. There are some gulper areas where the weather probably isn’t going to cooperate, where your stomach is tight and you just don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Borton says he has checked an item off his bucket list, with memories to last a lifetime. “We knew it would work, and it did,” he says. “We had a particularly good moment when the sun came out in Glacier Bay, in front of a glacier there. That was just awesome. The glacier was calving and making lots of noise. We saw eagles and seals hitching rides on the icebergs.”
Now, the Bortons are offering Wayward Sun for sale while working on their next model, the Solar Sal 24. There are plans for a spring 2022 boat show premiere.
This time around, they’re hoping more showgoers might better appreciate the possibilities a solar-electric boat can offer. “We’re not going to win any races. If you want to go fast, this is not the boat for you,” Borton says. “But if you don’t want to spend money on fuel and maintenance and oil changes, and you like a quiet ride, this is something to think about.”
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.