The Frisian Solar Challenge for boats

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June 11, 2008 Human beings respond well when challenged and the bolder the challenge, the greater the result. The Frisian Solar Challenge for boats is already proof of this and its second running later this month portends a new age – one of silent, non-intrusive and respectful water-based leisure and a plethora of distributed power generation solutions. The inaugural 2006 Challenge and development funding availability created by progressive thinking in local Government has turned the Dutch province into a hotbed of commercial sustainable energy development. Centred around solar cell pioneer APA, the region has created an event worth travelling for - a week-long solar-boat tour of the region and a most intriguing man versus machine competitions. From June 22 to June 28, Friesland will be home to the world’s largest race of solar vessels: The Frisian Solar Challenge. The race runs along the 220-kilometres-long route of the Frisian Eleven Cities route already famous as the birthplace of competitive skating.

Around 50 teams will start the Challenge, mainly universities and specialist companies from Europe with teams from Brazil, England, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Poland, though a disproportionate representation from the local area, thanks in part to the success of the first event in 2006.

Participants must complete the 220 km route with its many bridges in six days, using self-developed solar boats – we are seeing the formation of a whole new type of leisure activity, a new means of propulsion for the water, a wide range of distributed power initiatives and, ultimately sustainable electricity-based lifestyle.

The teams overnight along the route, offering a logistical challenge of Formula One proportions for the organisers, but one the 450-person team handles admirably, with plenty of time for festivities in each port of call when the solar fleet arrives each evening.

A flurry of sustainable technology commercial activity in the area followed the first and the second Frisian Solar Challenge will also attract the best brains in Europe and connect them to the Fresian community – by being first mover in an emerging area of great importance, solar and sustainable energy development will thrive in the region – the promotion is an example of international economic development at its finest.

The aim of the organizers of the Frisian Solar Challenge is to connect the elements of the historical Frisian Eleven Cities Skating Race via its participants, (students from universities in the Netherlands and across Europe) to a local network of companies and services and cooperation in developing new applications of solar energy in shipping and in industry in general. The Frisian Solar Challenge is an event, but also a meeting place where the participating teams of specialists from high-tech companies are provided the opportunity to meet the Frisian high tech community and develop relationships – part sporting event, part high-tech networking.

Given Holland’s distance from the equator, it’s also an opportunity to show that solar power is not just relevant to sun-drenched tropical countries – even in sunshine-starved Holland, it’s possible to generate and apply solar power at a commercial level. That fact was indisputably proven by the first race along the Eleven Frisian Cities.

The route for the Frisian Solar Challenge has been lengthened slightly to 220 kilometres since the initial skating race of 1909 when it covered 189 kilometres. Taking the various lengths and times into account, the inaugural 2006 time for the course was almost identical to the time taken to win the first skating race – the Solar Boat team from Delft took the chequered flag in 16 hours 50 minutes and 48 seconds at an average speed of 13.06 km/h whereas Minne Hoekstra 13.50 completed the 1909 course at an average of 13.67 km/h.

It required 15 runnings of the race to push average speeds from Hoekstra’s 13.67 km/h to Henk Angenent’s 29.3 km/h average speed in 1999 – Coen de Koning pushed the average to 19.3 km/h in 1917, and almost every time the race has been run, the winner’s speed has improved. Our bet is that within a few years that mark will be bettered by solar power and human ingenuity – with far greater improvements available in a much shorter time.

Like most sports, skating only has organised events going back just beyond the 20th century. As with motor-racing, events were most easily established between two landmark points, and most of the early competitions, as with cars, were between two points. In Holland, when the canals freeze in winter, the canal system joining the eleven major cities of the Dutch province effectively became a ready made roadway just for skaters and a wonderful high speed and scenic route for speed and endurance skaters. The tour became a popular pastime for skaters across Europe, with crowds attracted from many miles around to witness what was then perceived as a modern progressive leisure activity. The progressive Friesland councils of the day seized on the new activity to make it their own and promote ice-related sports in its area.

A particularly long and cold winter (1890/91) saw the unofficial tour become so popular with the general public that pioneer sporting entrepreneur William 'Pim' Mulier conceived the idea of an organised tour, which eventually happened in 1909.

The aim of the organization has changed little in a century and has brought much sports related industry and commercial activity to the area. Not surprisingly, the solar boat racing is doing similar.

The resultant Elfstedentocht (English translation: "Eleven-cities Tour") is a speed skating competition and leisure skating tour held irregularly in the province for more than 120 years.

The tour, almost 200 km in length, is conducted on frozen canals, rivers and lakes which link the eleven Frisian cities: Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum and finally again Leeuwarden.

The tour is not held each year, mainly because the weather does not yield sufficiently thick ice each year to achieve the safety of racetrack desired.

The increased popularity of extreme sports in western society, which has seen such novel and difficult events (marathons, triathlons, bike racing) achieve cult athletic status capturing large proportions of the public as participants, saw a similar growth in numbers for the skating event.

The fastest skaters from around the world regularly lined up to challenge and be defeated by the locals. Apart from the professional competitors, the event attracts 15,000 amateur skating athletes, significantly increasing public risk if the field thins the ice within the regulatory minimum thickness of 15 centimetres.

Finally, there’s a twist to the history of the Elfstedentocht which makes it perhaps one of the most significant sporting events in history and ever-so suitable for developing a new-age technology community with its “spirit”.

Unlike most long distance races, where individual glory is unanimously sought and there is just one victor, the Elfstedentocht has a history of “unified” finishes, which in itself displays a great deal about the psychology of the local area which is one of “for the common good.”

In 1943, two competitors who had fought it out across the distance of the event (Abe de Vries and Sipke Castelein), conspired to cross the line as one, so both would win. The idea caught on, with the leading group in 1947 of Piet Keizer, Auke Adema, Cor Jongert, Dirk van Duim and Sjouke Westra all linking hands too.

The practice was forbidden by the organization so there could be a clear winner (fair enough that’s what events traditionally mean), and was subsequently run in 1941, 1942, 1947 and in 1954, each time with an individual winner. The practice of linking hands reappeared in 1956, when Jan van der Hoorn, Aad de Koning, Jeen Nauta, Maus Wijnhout and Anton Verhoeven ignored the rule and crossed the finish line in unison, linked arm-in-arm. No winner was declared, and now as with all sporting events on the planet, individual glory in the event is now placed ahead of the common good. It must be said though, that the cooperative spirit of the region and its effects on commercial development appear very synergetic and having an aligned workforce and community is a powerful alchemy for success.

So when the sun is out, and has long since thawed the ice, the same 200 kilometres (now 220, but who’s counting) makes a perfect historical setting for a solar boat race, with its inherent advanced specialities and seeking a location with all the requisite commercial services for a particular endeavour.

Witness too, the fascinating evolution of the great city-to-city car races in the first few decades of the automobile and you will see the sort of gains we might see achieved at the event in 2008 and beyond..

The 2006 event certainly fired up economic activity in the area. The most noticeable commercial product to spin out of the first challenge is the Czeers EUR 650,000 solar power boat we covered recently. Now the first contenders for the 2008 event are emerging and promise even greater performance. The race, is something to behold.

Interestingly, the unique terrain of 220 km of canals means that there are sometimes bridges and dijkes which require the boats to be lifted from the water and carried by teams of people. When thin ice prevented use of certain parts of the canals in some prior races, skaters would be sometimes required to walk distances in their skates before they could resume their race on safely robust ice.

The rigours of having a five man team having to lift a boat out of the water, carry it a distance and safely launch it again absolutely ensures that boats will be practical and robust.

Just one example of the boats planned for launch on June 22 is the creation from a team from Vripack.

Vripack® designs and builds interiors and exteriors of luxury yachts, and indeed makes kits for a wide range of boats which are manufactured in boatyards around the world. Vripak’s entry into the Frisian Solar Challenge is significant for the industry because the company is clearly exploring alternative propulsion by use of Solar Panels, which it can implement globally very readily. Accordingly, much of the interest surrounding Vripak’s state-of-the-art research and development project for the 2008 Frisian Solar Challenge is centred on the team’s futuristic Solar Boat.

The aim of the project is to design and construct an ultra light boat that is strong enough to endure the rigours of the long distance race, and fast enough to win. The single-person boat is propelled by a two blade propeller placed on an innovative pod coupled to an all electric motor. Power comes from five solar panels and the tiny black carbon and fibreglass beauty can achieve a speed of 11 knots at full stretch – if it can achieve an 11 knot average (20.372 km/h), it will be well ahead of the time-frame required by the skaters to achieve such improvements (32 years) .

The mixed composite hull construction of the Vripak boat keeps costs down and uses the lighter carbon at key points to make the boat as light as possible. With an overall length of 6 meters and a 2 meter beam, the boat will need to be manually lifted out of the water and transported over obstacles such as dikes. For this purpose a quick release has been designed to dismantle the solar panels. The solar boat of the future could well be evolving before our eyes and it may well make its first appearance in the Frisian Solar Challenge 2008.

Vripak began in 1961, combining the design and sale of yachts in a single dedicated company, initially creating smaller motor, sailing and flat-bottomed yachts. The company was responsible for a number of trail-blazing designs, most notably its evolving range of Doggersbank motoryachts which began in 1968 at a modest 10.8 metres, by 1971 had grown to 15-metres, with a 19-metre version appearing in 1973 and a 24-metre model a year later. Over the decades since, more than 500 Doggersbank yachts have been built in a multitude of different versions.

The following borrows heavily from Dick Boon’s history of his own company.

In the spring of 1987, the risks involved in complete yacht builds had become prohibitively high and Vripak closed down its sales office and concentrated on its core business of yacht design, with three highly knowledgable, very experienced people. The enormous in-house experience accrued by Vripack through over two decades of project management meant the company was uniquely proficient in the countless aspects involved in the design of a yacht. With new technology to hand, this expertise found an exceptionally efficient application by distributing its expertise using computer technology.

As computerised nesting developed, many construction activities shifted from yard sheds and workshops to design offices. The last 10 years have seen a genuine revolution in yacht design, engineering and building. Vripack has led the way in optimising the possibilities of CAD/CAM technologies and set new standards in design capability. Today, Vripack functions as a professional design and construction office involved in the entire building process: Design, construction, plate extensions, nesting, systems, interiors, new construction management, brokerage, registration and class, VAT mitigation and so on. This means that in addition to serving owners, Vripack also counts many renowned Dutch and international yards as its clients, as well as working with other leading designers.

Vripack looks likely, from our standpoint, to be a significant player in solar boating.

The poster company for the region is APA.

APA's activities are focused on the development of new technology for the production of low-cost, thin-film solar cells. The development and manufacture of other cost-efficient thin-film applications using the company’s patented technology are developed in parallel with its solar cell development.

The new locations in Leeuwarden will be where APA intends to develop new technologies on a lab scale and then up-scale them to production level. APA is aiming to become an important player in the global solar cell market and is hence a great drawcard for bringing other innovative companies to the region.

APA's first solar cells are expected to have an efficiency of 6-7%. (adequate for large-scale applications) but the technology road map has APA planning to deliver solar cells with circa 10% efficiency in next few years, enabling all manner of decentralised energy applications.

In addition to the location of APA, and the formation of Czeers, there have been many initiatives in the field of sustainable energy consumption in Fryslân over the course of the last two years, including the start-up of electric boat company “De Stille Boot” in Heeg, the formation of a Solar Energy Knowledge Centre which researches new applications and improvements in the efficiency of solar panels, the Formation of the Electric Sailing Foundation, and the establishment of venture funding for projects and start-ups in the area of electric propulsion.

The second Frisian Solar Challenge for boats portends a new age – witness its second running here or in person if you are in the area. This is a significant event which will command a place in the history books several centuries from now. So it's worth a look and we also hear they’re very friendly down there!

Mike Hanlon

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