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PlanetSolar prepares to enter pirate waters

The spectacular catamaran has received a rapturous welcome on its global tour

(Keystone)

After a brief stop-off in Mumbai, Switzerland’s PlanetSolar is presently hugging the coastline of Pakistan on its 50,000-kilometre solar round-the-world voyage.

Project founder and crew member Raphaël Domjan talks to swissinfo.ch about the amazing welcome the boat has received so far and the huge challenges ahead as they prepare to cross the pirate-infested Arabian Sea.

The SFr16 million ($17.3 million) MS TÛRANOR PlanetSolar, which sails under a Swiss flag, is the world’s largest vessel of its kind and aims to raise awareness of renewable energies.

Five crew members are on board the huge solar-powered catamaran under the command of French captain Erwan Le Rouzic..

swissinfo.ch: Your boat recently escaped stormy weather off the Indian coast. How has it coped with rough seas?

Raphaël Domjan: Until now the boat has never been forced to seek refuge at a port owing to storms. Whenever there were very strong winds we were in the middle of the ocean.

In Australia there were 50-knot winds (around 100 kilometres per hour) with seven- to eight-metre-high waves. Beyond that it’s hard to know what the boat can stand.

But after completing two-thirds of the journey the boat has proven to be very solid and safe. The only breakages have been piles of crockery.

In the event of even stronger winds, the main danger would be for the boat to get driven towards the coast. With empty batteries and no motor this would be dangerous. We have to keep a close eye on the weather to sail with the energy we have available. I help alongside the captain and Meteo France, which is based in Toulouse, and helps us identify currents and the ideal routes.

swissinfo.ch: What has the welcome been like each time you stop?

R.D.: Everywhere PlanetSolar goes it makes the front page of the local papers. We have always had an incredible welcome, except perhaps in Singapore.

Everywhere we stopped people had heard of us. In the Pacific Ocean, and in particularly at the Galapagos Islands, we had some amazing experiences. In the middle of the Pacific some fishermen stopped us who had seen a report on PlanetSolar on a TV station based in Quito in Ecuador.

This is also partly due to the futuristic design of the boat, which is 35 metres long, 26 metres wide and three stories high. It’s not a cargo ship or a cruise ship but it’s about three or four times the size of an America’s Cup boat.

swissinfo.ch: And like Alinghi, you sail under the Swiss flag.

R.D.: The boat was registered in Basel, like all cargo ships and ocean-going yachts. The crew raise the Swiss flag whenever we arrive in port and the local press, officials and business people are invited to discover what can be done with solar technology. We explain that we have sailed 45,000 kilometres – the circumference of the globe – from Monaco using the sun’s energy and not a drop of fuel, and this solar power also provides us with on-board lights and cooking facilities to heat our meals and coffee.

swissinfo.ch: You’ve come a long way but there are dangers ahead, in particular pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden.

R.D.: From Mumbai we are crossing the Arabian Sea and PlanetSolar is due to attend the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates in mid-January. We will then cross the very dangerous Gulf of Aden. We cannot cross it without a security system that we are currently working on. There are several possible strategies to prevent pirate attacks.

Afterwards we will sail along the coast and once we’ve passed Aden and Djibouti we will sail up to the Red Sea and go through the Suez Canal. At that point we are practically home, then on to Monaco, where the arrival is planned for spring 2012.

swissinfo.ch: There are currently two major ongoing round-the-world solar projects: Solar Impulse – a solar plane launched by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard – and yours. How is it possible that a tiny alpine nation can dream up two such ideas?

R.D.: Switzerland is a solar pioneer. The first solar boat race took place on Lake Neuchâtel in 1960. The first solar car rally – the Tour de Sol – took place in 1985 between Romanshorn and Geneva.

Switzerland has always done excellent research and development into solar technology; a dye solar cell, known as the Grätzel cell, was invented by Michael Grätzel at Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).

What’s crazy is that our two projects originated just 60 kilometres apart - one in Lausanne and the other in Neuchâtel. This is nothing when you look at the size of our planet. Switzerland should be proud of this.

Switzerland has an image that needed to be defended abroad, but which is different from that of neutrality and banking. It is important to show that Switzerland is also involved in technological challenges and that it is our global responsibility to protect our planet and the future of our children, and give a positive and optimistic sense to the word progress.

PlanetSolar

PlanetSolar set off on  September 29,2010 from Monaco on its 50,000km voyage around the world.

The catamaran is double-hulled, 35 metres long, 26 metres wide, three stories high and weighs 85 tonnes. On top are around 540m² of photovoltaic solar panels.

PlanetSolar is driven by two contra-rotating carbon propellers, whose diameter is almost two metres, twice the usual size for a vessel of this size, which makes propulsion more efficient.

As half the propeller is in the air and the other half underwater, a wheel effect is created, making it possible to steer the ship without a rudder.

Four electric motors, two per drive shaft, have a maximum output of 120kW and energy efficiency of over 90%.

The main challenge in solar shipping is bridging the time without sun by means of storage capacity and efficient propulsion. This is met by new technologies, including special batteries, which mean the catamaran can travel for around three days, even if there is no fresh solar power.

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(Translated from French by Simon Bradley), swissinfo.ch

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