All aboard The SunFlower

Step aboard the UK’s first solar-powered electric widebeam boat

Photos: Conor Beary

 

Midway through a conversation with Hayley Smith and Ryan Collingwood outside their boat, a passer-by stops in admiration. After taking in the striking modernist lines of the turquoise widebeam, he notices the solar panels and then lets forth a polite but seemingly endless torrent of questions about batteries, voltage, horsepower and engines. He’s clocked that The SunFlower is no ordinary boat – and that’s without snooping inside to see the secret wine cellar, the contemporary island kitchen, the underfloor heating and the huge bed that doubles as a tank storing rainwater from the roof. Curiosity finally sated, the man moves on.

“That happens all the time,” says Ryan, who designed and built The SunFlower with Hayley and now hopes to build similar sustainable boats. “We’ve had so many people talk to us, everybody who walks past seems to want to ask about it. We launched Thames Solar Electric to explain what it was and why the engine was so quiet. I loved designing it and would like to do it for others.”

Both Hayley and Ryan were already living on boats at moorings near Hampton Court when they decided to design a fully sustainable boat, which was completed in May 2017. They designed every element with style and sustainability in mind. At 20m x 4m, it’s even six inches wider than most widebeams – that way the solar panels appear fully integrated with the roof and there’s a little more interior wiggle room, providing a princely total of 640 square feet. “We didn’t want to run a diesel engine to pollute the water and air,” says Ryan. “We could see what was happening with electric cars and thought solar was perfectly suited to boats because they don’t move at 80mph and only travel short distances. They can store a lot of energy.”

Ah storage, one of the great issues with any boat – and we aren’t just referring to batteries. Ryan and Hayley have tackled this problem with gusto. Stairs double as drawers and cupboards, the modular sofa can be used as a spare bed or dining unit while the wardrobe in the spare room can be used as a desk and also folds away to provide unimpeded access to vital pipework. Best of all is the Perspex-covered wine cellar cut into the floor and covered by a rug. “We needed to access the plate so put in a number of hatches to get into the hull and decided to put one in that was a bit more fun,” says, who spent a lot of time on Pinterest getting ideas. There’s no skimping on luxury: there’s a flatscreen TV built into the wall, combined kitchen/living space with enough room to host, a spare double bedroom, an actual bath (“We were living on Hayley’s narrowboat and it had such a tiny shower I didn’t wash my feet for six months,” jokes Ryan) and a master bedroom with amazing views of the Thames. Given the surroundings, it’s no surprise that when Ryan makes coffee, he grinds his own beans.

The technical side was another challenge. Nobody had built a boat like this before, so Ryan, a builder originally from South Africa, had to do a lot of research to ensure the panels could generate enough power. He settled on installing 20 photovaltic solar panels that provide up to 6kw of power. This is stored in a lead acid battery – designed for a forklift – that powers two electric engines, as well as all internal appliances. “On a sunny summer day, we get about 18 hours of production and it all goes into the batteries,” says Ryan. “We specced it so it was enough to push the boat along, which takes up a huge amount of power. After that, everything else is negligible.”

The only limitations in terms of energy come during winter – there’s plenty of electricity for general living but long cruises are harder. An additional limitation comes with the boat’s size, which restricts the areas it can visit. Ryan and Hayley chose size over access, but they believe it would be possible to build a fully sustainable standard widebeam or narrowboat for those who favour cruising.

The dedication to sustainability is absolute. Triple-glazed windows are designed to take in maximum light and retain thermal heat in winter without overheating in summer – something Ryan compares to the “passive house” concept of energy efficiency. The boat has 70mm foam insulation, while a heat recovery system takes warm stale air and uses it to heat cold air as it enters, retaining 75% of the heat. The toilet, needless to say, is also eco-friendly. It has a separation system that means solids can be turned into compost for Hayley’s mum’s garden while liquids go into the river. A fan sucks out air to kickstart the process and remove that homely odour usually associated with boat toilets.

The stove is an eco-boiler that burns renewable smokeless logs and heats pipes laid beneath the concrete floor. “We make a fire and there’s a thermal switch that pumps hot water through the slabs to heat up 18 tonnes of concrete,” says Ryan. “It chucks all the heat into the slab so you don’t need to make a fire every night.” Similarly, water from the roof is stored under the bed in a 1,000 litre tank and recycled in the bathroom and kitchen appliances – drinking water comes from a more standard tank, although there’s also a filtration system so you could conceivably drink water straight from the Thames. Not that anybody has tried it yet. “One step at a time,” says Hayley.

With The SunFlower gearing up for winter, Ryan and Hayley are now hoping to design and build similar boats for others attracted by a gas- and- diesel-free lifestyle. “We learnt a lot from doing it for ourselves for the first time,” says Hayley. “Now that it’s built we could adapt it and be more flexible for people who want a greater range.”