Continuing Solar planning

Sadly, we can’t do much but plan at the moment. However, that does at least give us the opportunity to improve those plans.

In More on sustainability, I included a bit about Jimmy Cornell needing to abandon his attempt to sail around the world with zero carbon emissions. So another incentive to improve our plans.

This is what we have so far:

Wheelhouse roof

4 x 40 watt panels (total 160 watts) for the top of the wheelhouse roof. To be connected so that the two sides are in parallel reducing the impact of the considerable shading as the main boom is just above the wheelhouse.

Guardrail mounted

4 x 175 watt panels (total 700 watts) to be fitted alongside the guardrails. They will be moveable, tiltable and removable. So we can have up to 4 on either side of the boat (to catch the sun). While sailing we should be able to have 2 per side (positioned about 3/4 of the way aft), with the option to drop them to be vertical (like canvas side dodgers but with a gap for water drainage below them) for docking or if waves are a problem. But there are plenty of people sailing with these pretty permanently mounted (eg Rigging Doctor, Millennial Falcon, Sailing Project Atticus). We can also remove them and store them below in really bad weather (recognising that ours are larger and hence more windage).

We have been exploring lots of potential ways of fitting these. Quite a lot will end up depending on how our budget goes over the next few years, we explored a cheap getting us started option using lightish timber struts. However we now have a better solution Simplifying guardrail solar panels.

Longer Term Plans:

By adding a solar “arch” (see below) we should have a grand total of 1460 watts. That is more than Jimmy Cornell, plus we will be able to rotate and tilt most of them to improve efficiency. Coupled with significantly reduced power consumption (only 2 people, wind vane steering, only one fridge, no electric winches etc) we think we are heading towards the right ballpark figure.

Solar Arch.

We have lost count of the number of design options we have been through. Here was one. It got pretty complicated as we work around all the constraints. Our fairly narrow stern, mizzen boom and need for Hydrovane self steering make the structure very challenging.

Our current thinking is to mount two 300 watt panels almost completely independent of each other (total 600 watts). Through a combination of rotating and tilting we will be able to position them for maximum efficiency while also being able to have them either clear of the mizzen sail (ie sticking out aft beyond the boat length) or safe for docking or storms (ie extending forward over the mizzen boom and aft cabin) at which point we would not be able to use the mizzen sail. They will also be removable, even at sea so that again we can stow them (probably on deck due to their size) if needed.

Our plan is to first shorten the mizzen boom as much as we can for the existing sails. Longer term we might get a new mizzen sail with a shorter foot but fully battened with a fathead sail (google images of Fathead mainsails), that would keep the boom further out of the way,

Then the implementation we have agreed with Hydrovane puts the actual vane a little higher than normal so that it is clear of the mizzen boom and sail (thus allowing us to tack without having to touch the vane mechanism).

The solar support will start with an upright carbon fibre tube in each aft corner of the deck (or possibly just down the transom a little), these will be positioned so that they are just clear of the boom as it swings across. They will have a diagonal strut going forward and another diagonal going across the stern. There is a vast array of carbon fibre tubes available up to 54mm diameter so we have some calculations to do. We will mount a smaller carbon fibre tube through the deck that will go down to the full where it will be epoxied in, this will stand clear enough of the deck for the main upright to drop onto it and be close to fully self supported, the struts will add more rigidity as a precaution.

The top 500mm or so will be above the diagonal struts and the top part will be filled with thickened epoxy. This is then a base onto which the pole for the solar panel drops. These Carbon Fibre Tubes are designed so that each size slides into the next size up. So the poles for the panels will be one size up from the fixed upright tubes. They too will have a thickened epoxy filling in key places but leaving 500mm open to drop onto the upright tubes. Connecting the tubes this way allows the upper section to be rotated or removed. We will have a hole for a pin will allow the rotation to be locked in two places (and will also stop the top tube lifting off).

A smaller tube will be fitted horizontally to the top of the solar panel upright. Using a smaller diameter will allow us to attach it by through drilling the upright for the horizontal to fit though. The joint area will then be filled with thickened epoxy to lock everything in place. The horizontal tube will only project out on one side of the upright (like an inverted L). Using the rotation and locking pin this can be forwards or backwards from the upright. This horizontal will be approximately 3/4 of the length of one of the solar panels.

To attach the solar panel we have two slightly oversized square tubes. These are the long enough to be fitted to the solar panel (going across the width of it). They have holes drilled in the middle, with short lengths of tube (next size up from the horizontal) fixed into them so that they can slide onto the horizontal tube. This attached the solar panel and allows it to tilt.

To support this we add a smaller tube as a diagonal brace between the upright and the unsupported end of the horizontal tube. At which point it will look a like we have a pair of gallows on the boat with solar panels on top 🙂

All the fixed joints will be created by smaller diameter tubes going through the larger, the smaller tubes will have smaller holes inside the joint so that when the joint area is filled with slightly thickened epoxy they get locked into place. We will also use epoxy fillets on the outside of the joints.

We will use dyneema guys to control the tilt of the panels with the option to use them to lock the rotation in other places than the locking pin allows.

To remove the panels we will use a halyard. We will rig it so that the pull is up a topping lift, that means as the upright tube comes free the whole thing won’t swing wildly about into the mast.

This give us multiple positioning options:

  • Preferred sailing option. Turning the panels aft so clear of the mizzen, with the ability to tilt them either for maximum solar efficiency or for minimal windage (compensating for the boats heel) depending on the conditions.
  • Preferred docked option. Turning the panels forward, the mizzen can’t be used but they are fully within the deck outline so not going to snag on other boats or be a hazard to people on the dock.
  • Moderately bad conditions. Assuming that you have taken the mizzen sail down, turn the panels forward and take the tilting control lines forward for maximum stability (better angle and braced to the deck rather than the support post).
  • Storm conditions expected (whether sailing, at anchor or in a marina). Lift the panels up so the uprights come off the fixed supports (using a halyard that has a low friction loop so that it runs up the mizzen topping lift giving a close to vertical lift). Lower to the deck and secure.
  • At anchor. Rotate and tilt so the panels are close to right angles to the sun, adjust to compensate for both the boat and the sun moving.


There are obvious concerns about having large panels relatively high in the air. However, there have now been multiple Atlantic crossings by boats similar in size to Vida with panels this size on solar arches.

We do recognise that our design is a little different due to the complications (mizzen and hydrovane). We do not think this design is possible with the typical stainless steel tubing designs. However, carbon fibre tubes can be used for a wide variety of purposes including masts and wind turbines, that support significant loads on unstayed uprights.

Unlike other solutions we have a variety of options do deal with different conditions. We are not creating a fit and forget solution but one that fits with our expectation of Active Solar Generation which we believe is a critical factor in achieving zero fossil fuels. The real potential to increase solar generation isn’t clear but a 30% increase is possible when you can angle correctly and far more if panels can be moved to avoid shading.

Wind generators

We can potentially add a similar pole support base on each side of the boat by the mizzen mast. In suitable conditions a wind generator can then be deployed. Again using the active generation principle. Wind generators are only effective in certain conditions, so why would we want the noise and windage all the time? However, they are the best option for reducing the need for a generator when we need electric power for heating while anchored in winter when there isn’t much sun.

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