Conrad Colman. My solo round the world race with a renewable sailing boat

Conrad Colman, a young sailor from New Zealand, is determined to be the first person to complete the Vendée Globe race without using fossil fuels.

29 sailing boats set off on the 6th November, each of them with just one person aboard. They embarked on a non-stop solo three month journey around the world, navigating in the Southern Ocean, via three iconic locations: Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), Cape Leeuwin (Australia) and Cape Horn (South America). This is the Vendée Globe, one of the most challenging races of its kind, called by experts the “Everest of the Sea”, which starts and finishes in the French city of Les Sables d’Olonne, Loire.

The 21 frontrunners of the Vendée Globe are French. Conrad Colman is the first sailor from New Zealand to take part in this race and he’s determined to set a record: becoming the first person to complete it by using exclusively clean energy.

Vendée Globe
The itinerary of the Vendée Globe race © Vendée Globe

What does Conrad Colman want to do?

45,000 kilometres, a hundred days of voyage (the record is 72), few hours of sleep, moments of tension and exertion, dreadful weather conditions and not a drop of fossil fuels.

Colman explains his commitment to the environment with these words: “Growing up in New Zealand I was aware of the hole in the ozone layer there. Even when I was little I would always clean the beaches with my mum. I became a vegetarian and still am, not  because I care especially about cute lambs but more because I was concerned about the global impact of the chain of food production and consumption”.

Thanks to the technologies employed Colman’s boat uses solely hydro, solar and wind energy. Though he doesn’t need a motor for sailing, he can’t do without electricity for the instrumentation.

The other contestants use diesel, Colman uses renewables

In the middle of the ocean, alone, with an 18 metre-long boat, skippers need a lot of power for their hi-tech equipment: on-board computers, GPS, communication, emergency and desalination systems, weather stations, water heating and, obviously, autopilot systems, the latter being the trustworthy travel companions that guide the boats when the skipper sleeps.

The other boats have diesel generators and about 300 litres of diesel on board. Colman, instead, has an electric motor that also functions as a generator because it has a propeller that turns when the boat moves through water, solar panels on deck and a thin-film solar cell integrated in the mainsail: this mix generates electric power for seven days, stored in nine batteries.

The nautical industry: towards a renewable future

Conrad Colman isn’t the only one to rely on alternative energy: the transition to clean energy has also been made by the race’s organisers, who have set up an electric motor as an emergency propellant in case they need to draw in a contestant’s ship if it goes adrift.

With an old boat, dated 2004, and a limited budget, Colman doesn’t aspire to win: “I know I won’t win and so I’m looking for something unique, that reflects my philosophy”, he explains. “My priority is doing [the race] differently, asking questions about the status quo and trying to build something for the future”. Just before the beginning of the race, Colman signed a sponsorship agreement with Foresight, a company operating in the renewable energy market. One of the contestants, in every sense of the word, is thus Dutchman Pieter Heerema, a billionaire who works in the fossil fuel field.

“This race is the right thing to do. Sailing is the only clean mechanical sport, as the world is going in this direction. My boat is also lighter because it doesn’t need an engine and fuel, with fewer moving parts and provides a huge buffer of stored energy that buys me time to find solutions in case of problems”, Colman explains. And he adds: “I hope my race around the world will show that it’s a good solution for the general yachting population”.

How hard is the Vendée Globe 

Colman’s trip will be challenging and he won’t necessarily complete it. Independently of what position he ends up in, it will be a success for him to even cross the finishing line. For example, in the last edition there were 20 competitors of which only 11 completed the journey. The same number of boats finished the 2008-2009 race, in which there were 30 competitors. The others dropped out, damaged structural parts of the boat, capsized, hurt themselves or had problems that prevented them from continuing to compete. In the current edition, the Spanish sailor Didac Costa had a technical problem just two hours after the start and had to come into port, but he didn’t give up: he turned back four days later, even if he was 1800 kilometres away from the others.

If Conrad Colman finishes the race he’ll show that renewable energy is reliable and worthy. Now all that is left to do is wish him fair winds and following seas.

Conrad Colman reaches Cape Horn after 66 days

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