Cruising the Kentucky River on homemade solar-power boats.
Ken Cooke and Bruce Hutcheson of Lexington are technology professionals, environmentalists, tinkerers and boating enthusiasts. So it seemed inevitable they would figure out how to power their recreational watercraft with the sun.
The self-described “river rats” began four years ago by putting two small solar panels and a battery in the middle of Cooke’s canoe and tooling around the Kentucky River and its tributaries from their dock at the 153-year-old Frankfort Boat Club.
Then Cooke got ambitious: He bought a sailboat and they added a roof with enough solar panels to feed 900 watts of electricity into batteries that power two trolling motors.
Cooke, accompanied either by his wife, Jean Watts, or Hutcheson, used that boat to silently cruise at a top speed of 4 mph along all of Kentucky’s commercially navigable waterways. He also traveled the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River, as well as the Cumberland River from the Ohio River to Nashville.
Cooke last year sold that boat to Frankfort retirees Shaun and Paula Murphy, who have even bigger plans. On the cabin’s folding table, they have laminated a map of the Eastern United States’ inland waterways for inspiration.
“I like it that you can hear all the sounds on the river because the boat is completely quiet,” Murphy said. “And it’s cheap; you can go out for a five-hour trip and it doesn’t cost you anything.”
Murphy, an Englishman who grew up sailing dinghies on the River Thames, has replaced the sail mast Cooke removed so he also can use wind power. Plus, there’s a gasoline-powered motor in case of emergency — or prolonged cloud cover.
Cooke and Hutcheson’s current ride is a pontoon boat with 18 solar panels forming the roof. It pumps 1,800 watts of electricity into eight golf-cart batteries. On a sunny day, it can go all day at a top speed of 5 mph.
Hobbyists and deep-pockets adventurers have been tinkering with solar-powered boats for years. A Swiss solar boat that cost 15 million Euros to build became the first to circumnavigate the globe in 2012. There are solar-powered passenger boats in Europe and ferries in Australia. But Cooke and Hutcheson just want to have fun.
“What made this feasible for me was the price of solar panels, which have dropped five-fold since about 2010,” Cooke said. He bought the 1980s boat for $1,500 and invested another $4,500 in the solar system and motors.
Hutcheson’s current project is building a 150-watt solar-powered kayak.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Cooke and Hutcheson and the Murphys got some curious looks from other boaters as they cruised their boats on the Kentucky River beside downtown Frankfort. But except when another boat passed, or they got close enough to hear cars buzzing across the “Singing Bridge,” there was little noise to disturb their trip.
“It’s nice if you’re not in a hurry,” Cooke said. “It’s nice if you like it quiet.”