When two friends started sailing in the Mediterranean in 2012, they were convinced the catamaran they were using could be converted to 100% solar (and of course wind) power. The end result has become a thriving operation offering totally carbon neutral sustainable holidays and yacht building. By Jeremy Torr.
Ibiza, Balearics. August 2019. From an idea to help cut down pollution from engine-powered charter yachts, Spanish outfit La Bella Verde (the Beautiful Green or LBV) has morphed from a boat chartering company into a fully fledged solar marine design team and non-profit sustainability foundation.
One of the LBV founders, Alistair, says that after working as crew on a charter catamaran back in 2012, he and his skipper Maarten started looking at the possibility of converting a boat to 100% solar power, rather than using stinky, unsustainable diesel. Together with another friend, Charlie, they scraped together enough cash to buy a catamaran they could convert. It was hard, pioneering work.
“Like most innovative ideas, (we had to) break through the criticism of others until we proved them wrong,” says Alistair.“Maarten and I were extremely passion-driven throughout this project, so we actually got most of our energy through the disbelievers. Every time we were told ´you can’t make this boat electric´ our (drive) became even stronger!”
Their first attempt was to use external, land-based solar charging. This meant manually removing four huge 66kg batteries, then carting them ashore every two or three days to be charged by wind and solar generators. Although it worked, and was emission-free, it was exhausting, says Alistair.
He and Maarten spent all the next winter designing and perfecting a lightweight solar bridge that could harvest the sun’s power and make the craft completely self-sufficient when out at sea. And do away with all the battery-hauling and charging.
“We always dreamed of building the perfect solar ‘day trip’ catamaran and after five years of experience, we have now modified and improved every possible detail,” asserts Alistair. Better still, with interest in the idea of sustainable sailing being stimulated, other people are becoming keen on using solar-powered catamarans.
“We launched La Bella Verde´s Series 1 Eco Cat in 2018 and the interest is already immense,” says Alistair. “We redesigned the solar bridge to a contemporary style and with optimum efficiency, plus the engines now have stronger propulsion with the ability to hydrogenerate power while under sail.”
And with a nod to the team’s accent on enjoyment as part of being respectful of nature, they have also upgraded the onboard sound system to a high spec quality “to provide the perfect soundtrack to our sailing experience,” says Alistair. “This is a very cool eco cat, and we are extremely happy with the outcome and performance.”
Now, with the concept of a totally solar electric boat proven, LBV is expanding its operation from just offering cruises to eco-sensitive sun worshippers. The LBV team, now expanded to some 20 keen sustainable sailors, has established its first LBV Sailing School, offering people the chance to learn to sail an eco boat either as a hobby or for certified tourist licences, and will also be doing outreach to schools to provide education in sustainability and renewables, and organising beach clean ups too.
In addition it has also opened a workshop for Electric Boating which aims to give existing boat owners the knowledge and skills to convert their fuel guzzling vessels to green operation. And in association with the iBi Foundation, they are working on a specially designed solar powered catamaran that can scoop up and collect floating plastic debris around Ibiza and the Balearic Islands. LBV says the goal is to create widespread awareness and encourage other people to start similar sea-plastic collection projects around the world. But the best publicity the LBV team has had to date was at the 2018 Barcelona Boat Show. As Alistair explains, it was LBV’s very first exhibition at a boat show.
“We arrived two days late after treacherous crossing from Ibiza, and this meant the harbour’s pedestrian drawbridge had to be opened especially for us. As a result, 1,000 people stopped to watch the only ‘green boat’ at this major show, as it silently sailed by.”
And as the only solar boat out of some 700 on show, LBV was featured on three of Spain’s national news channels, as well as being the centre of attention for many other reporters. “It was like our message was starting to expand to an even greater audience,” adds Alistair. As the LBV mission statement puts it, “… we are here for a good time, and mother nature should not suffer at our expense. Sustainability is the process of maintaining change in a balanced fashion.”
But as Ido, LBV’s first woman captain says, possibly the best thing about working on one of the group’s seven solar boats is being part of a project that she can really believe in.
“The (ability) to combine my two careers – as a marine biologist and sailor - in the same job makes me really happy. The next best moment is seeing how so many clients enjoy the experience; they tell me it’s one of the best days of their lives. That makes me happy too,” she adds. “Being on one of our green cats is unparalleled… music, drinks on ice and hoisting the sails to glide us across the water is an idyllic lifestyle many can only dream of. For us, it’s a consistent reality.”
And a sustainable one too.