The head of the UK ailmakers loft in southern France, Alain Janet has spent most of his adult life making sails and working on how to make them better—not just for sailors, but also for the environment.
Three years ago Janet and the folks at UK Sailmakers developed an eco-friendly line of sails known as Titanium Blue, which eliminated the plastics in the sail by replacing the polyester and mylar with cellulose-based film and swapping out carbon yarn with yarn made naturally from basalt.
But Janet wanted to take the environmental angle and push it a little further. “I wanted to bring something to the sailor or the racer, and that is free energy,” he says. This led to the company’s latest development—Power Sails, sails built with integral solar panels. “It’s diesel you don’t put in your tank. It gives you more autonomy, better range.”
His idea was put to the test last year when Daniel Ecalard used a Power Sail prototype—a Titanium Blue mainsail that had been fitted with solar panels—during the Route du Rhum race. Janet figured a grueling 3,542-mile transatlantic race would be a good testing ground for his new project. “The test is the conditions of racing, if the sails can withstand the water, the salt, the rough pounding—there was a lot of rain during the Route du Rhum, and the storms didn’t affect the charging,” Janet says. “The solar panels and the electronics didn’t short out. The sail got flogged a lot, and that didn’t affect the charging either.”
After the success of his prototype, Janet knew he was on to something. “I shopped around at a couple of yards, but really wanted to work with one where I knew the owner was thinking on the same wavelength,” he says. “There were boatyards that said they’d be really interested—once they know it works. You know, the ‘none of our Euros are going to prototypes’ situation. We had to do all of the R&D on our own with the UK Sailmakers group, and we had no financial and technical support—it was homegrown. We kept on trying new products.”
Finally an agreement was struck between UK Sailmakers, Swedish-based Arcona Yachts and Christian Hallberg, the marketing director at Oceanvolt, to create a new line of sailboat—the Arcona 380Z (the “Z” stands for “zero emissions”). “This is not a one-off,” Janet says. “This time we are working on a production boat with a shipyard. They are going to be the first professional boatyard launching this new line of boats, boats outfitted in such a way that they can be autonomous. Arcona is going to be making a zero-emissions boat.”
But just how much power do these sails provide? “We have to have the sail generate a kilowatt [83 amps], and I’m confident we can do it,” Janet says. “It’s a bit of a technical challenge—we have to build a solar setup that doesn’t chafe on the spreaders, is protected when you reef, etc., but we will work around these challenges to develop a sail that will last and provide power for years. We gave the sail a two-year warranty.”
The Arcona 380Z was in the build phase at press time, with the expectation that it should be launched this spring. By the fall Janet should know if his project is a success or not. “Next fall it should have been sailing for a full season,” he says. “But really, the concept of this boat is almost as important as the boat itself. Other boatyards will follow the trend. Multihull manufacturers in France are keeping an eye on this.”
You can check out the progress of the boat (what is charging when, how much power is getting generated, etc.) at the UK Sailmakers website. But success or failure aside, with the going-green trend as popular as ever, and the continuous developments in technology that help these dreams become reality, this may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to solar power on sailboats.