Sunset over an uninhabited island, surrounded by clear blue water and coconut palms; relaxing music plays in the cockpit, while I crack into a green coconut. I pour the water from the coconut into a small blender with rum, add in some pineapple juice, sweetened condensed milk, a squeeze of lime, and a few precious cubes of ice: the perfect cocktail for a sun-downer.
Living on the boat for Lara and I is about participating in the natural world in a more consistent way. Before we moved onto the boat, rain was something that just happened, wind mysteriously appeared and disappeared, water came from the tap, and electricity was a bill you paid. When we lived on the dock, power and water was readily available, but when we cast off the dock lines, we had to be much more aware of every drop of water that left our tanks and every amp that came out of the batteries. Developing a balanced system took time and an understanding of our needs based on the level of comfort we wanted.
We started with just a wind generator and a non-mounted 80 watt solar panel that we laid out on deck while at anchor. In general, we found that the Kiss wind generator began putting out 2 amps of power at 10 knots of wind, and at 15 knots, it generated about 6-7 amps (in the Bahamas, we averaged about 3-4 amps per hour for a 24 hour period). However, we still didn’t have enough battery capacity to keep up with the draw of the fridge, so we left it off. Surprisingly, we didn’t miss much, but we did find that sometimes a cold beer would have taken the day up a notch. While planning projects on the boat, one of the better pieces of advice I received was to decide which small bits of “luxury” made us feel most comfortable and then figure out how to incorporate it on the boat to make the trip that much better.
Lifestyle: it cannot be stressed enough. Cranking up a loud generator and constantly worrying about power doesn’t fit my image of life on a boat. I looked all over the internet and found that increasing our solar capacity was a no-brainer. Compared to running the engine (sub-optimal for diesels to run without a load) or listening to the hum of our Honda generator, solar panels were clean, quiet, and cost effective. So after 6 months of cruising without a fridge, we decided to get rid of our “sometimes” solar panel and add on two semi-permanently mounted panels to supplement the wind generator and to make us truly energy independent (and keep the beers cold).
We decided to wait until we reached Miami so that we could go to Sun Electronics and pick them out from their stock at the warehouse — no shipping and if the panel didn’t fit how we wanted it to, we could just return it. We picked out a 95 watt panel and a 75 watt panel for a total of 160 watts of solar. Not much, but the the most our transom could comfortably support. Since mounting solar panels on a boat is a notoriously tricky business, we kept it simple. We built an aluminum frame on the bottom of the smaller panel and mounted it to the stern rail with Magma Grill Mounts so it would be easily removable. For the larger panel, I used a simple bracket that I attached to the pole with hose clamps, making it easy to remove, rotate, and angle towards the sun (the arm is adjustable through 90 degrees).
All in all, the mounting and wiring process took about a day, and two panels generating 10 amps between them at full sun cost us a total of less than $600; the cold beers, silence, and ice! in the Bahamas were priceless. Now we have a more balanced system. On most days, between wind and solar, the energy flowing into our batteries matches our out-flow — and we can even afford to use a blender.
Written by: Brian Young