Race to the Future
Solar technology still takes top billing at this racing event, but alternative energy sources are now in the mix.
They descend on Monaco from all over, including Italy, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Holland and France. While others come to this famed principality on the Mediterranean coastline primarily for its beaches and upscale casinos, these inter-national visitors have a loftier goal: to be the fastest team at the annual Solar & Energy Boat Challenge, now in its fifth year. Organized in collaboration with the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the Hydros Foundation and the International Powerboating Federation, the event is the only one of its kind.
For the 2018 challenge that takes place this month, Yacht Club de Monaco (YCM), the event organizer, expanded its entry requirements to allow clean energy sources of all kinds, in an effort to promote and optimize eco-friendly marine propulsion systems. Over three days, each team must complete four standard tests: a fleet-wide endurance race, speed contest, slalom and one-on-one duels. All races take place in the superyacht-filled Port Hercules, which provides quite the backdrop for the competition, with spectators lining quays and harbor walls.
Besides a 26-foot-long, hand-built boat, each team also brings a unique backstory to Monaco. For the past four years, Gerard van der Schaar’s Clafis Victron Energy Solar Boat Team has claimed first place in the open class. Van der Schaar, who is from the Netherlands, and his longtime friend and partner Mark Scholten have spent over 10 years building boats and competing in solar challenges across Europe.
In those first races, they quickly found that batteries were their boats’ Achilles’ heel. Leveraging shared backgrounds in electrical engineering, they developed a one-of-a-kind, proprietary lithium-ion battery that could power their boat across the finish line. Building off that success, they founded MG Energy Systems, which now supplies lithium-ion batteries to passenger ferries, superyacht builders and even other competitors in Monaco.
As a rule, van der Schaar says his company doesn’t spend money on advertising. “If you show with the boat that it’s possible, that’s the best advertisement you could ever have.”
In 2008, the first iteration of van der Schaar’s boat had a top speed of 9.5 knots. Last year his vessel set a world speed record of just under 26 knots. Yet even though the team is buoyed by that achievement, they are quickly becoming an outlier. Their competitors are getting younger and younger as more teams of engineering university students and entrepreneurs enter the fold.
One such team is Plastic Odyssey, founded by 26-year-old Simon Bernard of Brittany, France. Bernard got the idea for a plastic-waste-powered vessel from his travels with the French Merchant Marine, during which he saw “an ocean of garbage.” Making its debut in Monaco this year is Plastic Odyssey’s prototype that can harvest plastic pollutants, safely transforming them into a fuel source that will power the boat’s engines.
The team has ambitious plans. In 2020, Plastic Odyssey hopes to undertake a round-the-world expedition on an 82-foot vessel, relying solely on plastic waste as propulsion. “We want to prove that we can make the full trip,” says Bernard, “to solve the global issue of plastic pollution.”
When asked about YCM opening up the playing field to include more teams with different backgrounds and energy sources, van der Schaar seems delighted. “I think it’s a good development. This way, more universities and young people are involved.”
Marco Casiraghi, an engineer and the founder of the Solar & Energy Boat Challenge, agrees. “These technologies exist today, but they are just not being applied.”
For that reason, an offshore class for electric-powered boats was added to the Challenge last year. Built to YCM offshore class specifications, the boats compete on a 25-nautical-mile course from Monaco to Ventimiglia, Italy. “With this route, the aim is to highlight the enormous potential of our young engineers, whose efforts are supported by the shipyards,” said Casiraghi. “We have a common goal, which is to work together to build the leisure boats of tomorrow.”