Green Cruising with a Mix of Alternative Energy Sources

Whenever we stay in busy anchorages we are amazed how many cruisers still rely on diesel or gasoline generators. Especially on gray days generators start roaring on one neighboring boat after the other. With the variety of alternative energy sources that are available for reasonable prices nowadays it seems antiquated to burn long-dead dinosaurs and add to pollution.

We planned right from the start to go for an environmentally-friendly cruiser life-style and equipped the boat accordingly without a diesel or gasoline generator.

Our 12-Volt watermaker runs directly on battery power and for AC power tools, household devices and chargers we have an inverter. We find that cruisers who have one AC appliance (e.g. a big watermaker) which they planned to run once a week in theory, tend to add more AC gadgets (washing machine, dish washer, espresso machine, etc.) because the ‘generator is running anyway’ without realizing that each machine adds to their fuel consumption. Others motor a lot as ‘they need to charge the batteries anyway.’ It’s all a matter of habit of course, but we don’t feel that our low-carbon-footprint philosophy makes our lives harder or less pleasant in any way. On the contrary: tacking across a lagoon is more fun than motoring into the wind and somehow, water made by sun rays seems to taste better than water made by diesel.

solar panel mounting on the rail using both alternative energy sources of wind and sun
Pitufa’s a monohull with a slim stern, so we installed two large panels on the radar arch and two more on the railing using aluminum profiles as mountings

Assessing energy requirements

We underestimated our need for energy gravely when starting out with a wind generator and only 100 Watts of solar power, so we kept adding panels as souvenirs along the way. Purchasing in remote places is usually more expensive and ordering is a time-consuming and often nerve-wrecking process. It is therefore a good idea to tabulate energy requirements and equip the boat accordingly before setting out. 

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Solar panels

Solar panels form the basis of a green energy supply. Catamarans have plenty of space for panels, monohulls need more creativity. Pitufa’s a monohull with a slim stern, so we installed two large panels on the radar arch and two more on the railing using aluminum profiles as mountings (see picture). We experimented with flexible panels on the bimini, but it seems they cannot cope with flexing fabric—both died within a year. Flexible panels that are installed rigidly on deck or on hard spray hoods or biminis yield better results. By now we carry 600 W of solar power—more than enough for our needs (watermaker, fridge, inverter, laptops, navigation instruments, etc.). We refrained from installing a freezers because of their greed for energy during the night—if you have one you’ll need more solar panels, a larger battery bank (or lithium batteries that handle deep cycles much better), and/or a wind generator.

Rutland wind generator. Also check out the solar panel as a combined alternative energy sources
Our new Rutland wind generator

Wind generators

Wind generators keep the batteries full on gray days and during the night. Many brands lure customers in with amazing power-output graphs, but be careful: you don’t want to buy a wind generator without listening to that model in action first! Many of the big ones sound like a helicopter taking off with a banshee as a pilot—annoying when it’s installed on the neighboring boat, but imagine having it howling on your own radar arch day after day… Proprietors of such monsters either sleep with ear plugs or turn them off during the night, thus nullifying their main advantage of charging the batteries while the solar panels slumber during the dark hours. We are the happy owners of a small Rutland 914i, a model that is very reasonably priced and only announces its presence with a gentle hum, a friendly sound like a purring cat. It is not fantastically strong, but constantly adds some Amps and after a night with 15 knots of wind, the batteries are full in the morning.

Tow generators

During passages instruments and autopilot run all day, so consumption is higher, but often sails shade off solar panels, so production is lower. With the wind before or on the beam, the wind generator works nicely, but on downwind courses the apparent wind is less anyway and when the boat is rolling in high seas the generator starts spinning confusedly. In such conditions a tow generator helps keeping the energy budget on the positive side. Many of those models double as wind generators, but fixing them temporarily in the rigging is somewhat cumbersome, so many owners refrain from that effort. On Pitufa our wind vane steers the boat untiringly without the need for electricity, so we are fine without an additional towing generator.

No matter if you’re active sailors or enjoy hanging out in bays, if you follow the sunny trade-wind routes or brave rougher areas—with the right mix of alternative energy sources you can save fuel costs, keep your carbon footprint low, neighbors happy and mother earth a tiny bit healthier!

Birgit Hackl
Birgit Hackl, Christian Feldbauer and ship’s cat Leeloo have been exploring the world on their yacht Pitufa since 2011. Visit their blog: