Voyage of Ice and Sun
A father-and-son team make the 1,200-nm run up the Inside Passage to Alaska, with nothing but solar power to fuel their dream.
In 1778, Capt. James Cook became the first European to lay eyes on the far-flung waters of the Inside Passage. A navigator of considerable renown, he complained that the area’s myriad islands, bays and channels were generally fraught with mists and fog and vexed by powerful, unpredictable winds and currents. Capt. George Vancouver, one of Cook’s young midshipmen who subsequently became a famous explorer in his own right, followed his mentor into the same waters in 1790, dispatched by the British Admiralty to chart as much of the rocky, sparsely populated region as possible. Like Cook, Vancouver was mistrustful of the uproarious sea states and forbidding weather he encountered. He pronounced the constant rain and overcast “dreary and inhospitable.” And he often found the tidal forces he had to contend with overpowering and dangerous.
More to the point, while attempting to make his way through a confusing array of bays and channels in the midst of his surveys of the British Columbia coast in 1792, Vancouver literally lost control of his fully rigged, 337-ton sloop, HMS Discovery, for several anxious hours in waters too deep to anchor. “The night was dark and rainy,” he later wrote, “and the winds so light and variable, that by the influence of the tides we were driven about as if we were blindfolded in this labyrinth, until towards midnight, when we were happily conducted to the north side of an island.”
Listen to Capt. Bill’s Conversation with the Bortons in the player below:
It’s probably fair to say that the Inside Passage hasn’t changed much, if at all, since the days of Cook and Vancouver, at least in terms of extreme tides, bad weather and rambunctious sea conditions. Queen Charlotte Strait, for example, a broad expanse on the southerly end of the waterway, is deservedly considered obstreperous today. Waves, particularly those coming from the west, have literally thousands of miles to build deep, oceanic swells. Mild morning zephyrs can transition into full-fledged gales with sustained winds of 40 knots or more within the span of a few hours. Indeed, the fact that the whole area literally teems with small-craft advisories at various times of year is a telling detail. But, as strange as it may seem, it’s also a detail that serves to attract a very special kind of seafarer—a modern-day adventurer of sorts with an abiding interest in trying and testing new technologies, rather than exploring new territories.
“The Inside Passage was the perfect venue for what we wanted to do,” says Alex Borton, the 52-year-old member of a father-and-son team that, just this past summer, challenged the fabled Inside Passage, northbound, in a stalwart, superbly efficient, environmentally friendly, 27-foot cruiser called Wayward Sun. “We felt it offered the best proof-of-concept sea trial opportunity for a solar-powered boat we could think of.”
“After all,” adds David Borton, the 77-year-old patriarch, “if you can make it all the way from Bellingham, Washington, to Juneau, Alaska, a total of 1,200 nautical miles, over a route where rain, overcast skies and other difficult conditions prevail, with nothing but the sun for power, I think you’ve genuinely demonstrated the viability of a solar-powered cruising boat.”
How Wayward Sun came to be the test bed for this exceptional project is an interesting story. Originally, the boat’s mission in life was to cruise mild and mellifluous waters in serene, smokeless, solar-powered peace. She was constructed for the Bortons in 2018 by Olympia, Washington’s Sam Devlin, the well-known inventor of the so-called stitch-and-glue method of boatbuilding, a technique whereby plywood panels are temporarily held together with wire sutures until epoxy and fiberglass tape can be applied to make the joints permanent. Wayward Sun’s hull, deck and superstructure were assembled via Devlin’s typically careful, nicely detailed S&G process. Then he added a 4.0-kW Torqeedo Cruise 4.0 electric pod-drive propulsion package, along with four Torqeedo Power 24-3500 lithium-ion batteries for electrical storage, an array of eight Solbian SP144 solar panels on the boat’s rooftop, a separate 12-volt system (for lights, electronics and other DC requirements) and an inverter for AC loads. High-quality marine paints and varnishes finished the job.
The Seattle Boat Show came next, and when the boat arrived at the show in January of 2019, she attracted considerable interest. Almost as soon as the crowds started to gather, Devlin and his father-and-son customers began thinking about joining forces to turn out a modest flotilla of identical vessels to sell to solar-power enthusiasts over the coming months and years. Nobody at the time was seriously contemplating a 1,200-nautical-mile extravaganza up the Inside Passage as a way to demonstrate the viability of sunshine-inspired propulsion.
The spirit of competition, however, unexpectedly intervened. “It was kinda funny,” Devlin explains, “because, as I just said, Wayward Sun was originally designed as sort of a lake boat—not an open-ocean cruising vessel capable of doing the Inside Passage. When the Bortons ordered her, we envisioned something that an owner might spend a sunny Sunday afternoon on, touring a protected body of water, under relatively mild conditions. But then, the two Bortons heard about a boat I was building for another customer—a catamaran with twin electric motors that was scheduled to make the first-ever electrically powered run up the Inside Passage to Juneau. And the Bortons—I guess they’ve got a bit of a competitive streak. They decided they needed to be the first to do that run, not only with electric propulsion but with solar-powered electric propulsion. So, heck—they just added some extra batteries and some extra solar panels and off they went. Two really brave, gutsy boys, those Bortons.”
Other attributes, of course, characterized the pair as well. And the most germane, at least from the standpoint of voyaging vast, blue, unpredictable expanses of water in a 27-foot, solar-powered “lake boat,” was their abundance of real-world, seafaring experiences. Although a psychotherapist by trade, Alex had sailed small open vessels on long excursions in remote places like Chilean Patagonia and Baja California. As a young educator working with the National Outdoor Leadership School, he led multi-week boating expeditions that featured bare-bones navigational technology (like maybe a compass and a folded paper chartlet) and zip for creature comforts. David, who’s now retired from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he taught solar energy engineering for more than 30 years, was no stranger to watery adventures either. A few years ago, he completed a 750-nautical-mile round trip on the Erie Canal in a 44-foot, solar-powered Hudson River tour boat he built himself. Sometimes with crew, sometimes without.
Officially, Wayward Sun took departure for her Inside Passage challenge on the afternoon of May 25th, according to her captain’s log, with a comparatively short run of about five hours from Bellingham almost due west, for a distance of about 19 nautical miles, to Ewing Cove on verdant Sucia Island. Commentary for the evening was understated. “Ewing Cove—last day on land for a while!” Because of issues related to the pandemic, American mariners were not allowed to go ashore in Canada at the time, a restriction that meant the next port of call would have to be Ketchikan, Alaska, just beyond British Columbia’s border, almost 700 nautical miles to the north. And, as it turned out, leap frogging to Ketchikan from one anchorage to the next while proceeding at steady but stolid speeds took a total of 20 rough-and-ready days, with no heat on board (despite temperatures often in the low 40s at night), no showering or bathing (except for the occasional leap over the side into the frigid depths), a few books for entertainment, a dearth of genuine elbowroom and a only a modicum of privacy.
The Bortons, however, never faltered. Peace, quiet and amiability generally reigned supreme. Panoramas of snow-capped mountains floated by almost daily. Paper charts and cruising guides (specifying possible anchorages) were always on hand, along with a Garmin GPS EchoMap 94 plotter and a sat phone. In addition, there was a comfy cuddy up forward with a V-berth and Laveo dry-flush toilet. Electric lights promoted night-time reading, and the refrigerated and non-refrigerated food supplies on board were ample and way tastier than the chow that Cook, Vancouver and their respective crews dealt with back in the day. In none of the writings of these two famous explorers, incidentally, is there the remotest reference to popcorn, dark chocolate, cheesy hash browns, granola bars, oatmeal, vegetable stir fries, pasta, chips, guacamole or Tasty Bites boil-in-a-bag Tikka Masala.
“We even enjoyed waffles on special occasions,” says Alex, “although we had to be careful—our waffle iron drew 1,000 watts, which was enough power to move Wayward Sun along at 4.5 knots.”
“And for exercise,” he continues, “it didn’t take too many days for us to start pacing. Daily walks. We could walk five paces down the middle of the boat before turning around. Dad knows how many paces per mile. I was never able to count that high.”
Although the wiles of solar power are subtle, at least when stacked up against the noisier, smellier, more expensive habits of the internal combustion engine, Wayward Sun’s dashboard multimeters and throttle needed careful monitoring during the cruise. Yet, even when overcast and rain predominated, the Solbian solar panels kept Wayward Sun steadily moving through her element. Speeds, on the other hand, varied—sunny days were faster and cloudy days slower. “With clear skies,” says Alex, “we could collect enough power to easily do 4.5 to 5 knots while continuing to charge the batteries. When it was cloudy, 2 to 3 knots was more like it. We adjusted our speed and daily distance to match the conditions, something we could do, we discovered, pretty much indefinitely.”
As with most trips, there were a few adversities. Having to up anchor in early-morning darkness to catch a favorable tide was not unusual. And retreating for a day or so to a well-protected anchorage was sometimes necessary. While rain and fog were often troublesome, it was the wind that tended to shut things down. Trying to make headway in the big oceanic swells that sweep across large, open bodies of water like Queen Charlotte Strait and Dixon Entrance tended to simply stall Wayward Sun’s forward progress, draining her batteries and putting her crew in danger.
“We were respectful of the big, open water,” says Alex. “We were prudent mariners. We knew the capability of our vessel and we knew what our own capabilities were. So, by and large, I think we made pretty good decisions.”
A modest assessment? Absolutely!
Wayward Sun’s Inside Passage adventure concluded without incident on July 8th, a date that put some 44 days of solid solar-powered cruising in the rear-view mirror, with an average of approximately 28 nautical miles per day. Certainly, speed and schedule keeping were never the Bortons’ priorities. But, considering that they safely and securely ran a 1,200-nautical-mile gauntlet in a reasonable length of time, through a region that’s tested the mettle of many a seasoned seafarer over the years, seems to justify calling the trip an
unqualified success. Moreover, the Bortons did not find the mists and fog along the way fraught and vexing, as Cook had in 1778. And the rain, overcast skies and powerful tidal forces that Vancouver termed dreary and inhospitable in 1790? Both son and father found them eminently acceptable—and sometimes even enjoyable—thanks in large part to modern navigational electronics and a solar-electric powerplant that, while just as economical and environmentally friendly as an old-time explorer’s sailing ship, proved to be way more reliable and practical.
“I totally loved the whole thing,” concludes Alex, “and I’d have kept on going for another couple of months if I’d had more time off.”
“Yes,” David adds. “No cars, no neon lights, no streetlights. Some wind, wave and a little motor noise in the background. But otherwise, mostly calm and peaceful. What a great way to travel!”