Finding the right balance

Driving a solar boat isn’t for the faint of heart, especially if the weather isn’t behaving. They can reach speeds of 50 km/h and keeping them upright is often difficult. It’s sort of like trying to ride a bicycle on water.

“Because it’s only resting on two pillars it’s really unstable on its own,” Tijmen Bregt said. “The pilots have to keep the boat stable at all times.”

Bregt currently serves as the team manager of the TU Delft Solar Boat Team, which was established back in 2006 and will be involved in five competitions later this year. He and his colleagues are now entering the testing phase with the latest addition to their fleet of hydrofoil boats that run on solar energy. Their newly constructed 2016 edition features a more buoyant hull, an adjustable rear wing and an electrical system that was built entirely by the team.

They’ll be taking the boat for a few trips down the Schie in Delft this spring before they transport it to a group of lakes outside of the city. In those waters, which will provide them with plenty of room for more advanced manoeuvres, they’ll conduct tests that involve faster speeds and tighter cornering.

Operating a solar boat is definitely tricky and, in order to adhere to competition requirements (and prevent it from toppling over), the driver must keep a cool head and maintain a personal weight limit of around 70 kilograms. Inclement weather can also cause plenty of headaches. These boats must stay resistant to wind speeds of 20 km/h and remain as waterproof as possible. Rain and cutting-edge nautical electronics often get along as well with one another as cats and dogs. “It’s actually good to test and train in bad weather because if these races are in bad weather we still have to perform,” Bregt said. “Most of the time races aren’t cancelled if it’s a little wet outside.”

Four of the team’s five competitions this year will take place in the Netherlands so they’ll need to be prepared if the skies turn dark. Fortunately, they’ve come up with several strategic ways to handle crazy weather conditions. Members of the team serve as scouts along the route during these competitions to help make sure the driver has enough power to keep racing.

During the Dutch Solar Challenge this July, their boat will zoom through Amsterdam before tackling the ‘Elfstedenroute’ in Frisia. Along the way, the driver will have to contend with low bridges, crowded canals and other obstacles. “They don’t close off the water at all so we have to race around ordinary boats,” Bregt said. “Sometimes it can be difficult and we have to slalom around them.”

Not every boat will make it to the finish lines of these events and everything from waterlogged electronics to dead batteries could send them home early. The team will also be heading to Monaco this summer for the Solar1 Cup where they’ll face another challenge. “In Monaco, because it’s just open sea, the waves get really high,” Bregt said. “We’ve seen some boats, well, waves went over the top of them and the drivers got really wet so they had to return to shore to bail out the water.”

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