SEA ISLE CITY - Capt. Jim Greer, 72, a self-described "old hippie" from Colorado, is piloting a solar-powered boat around what is known as "the Great Loop."
The journey from Florida to Canada, through the Erie Canal and eventually back down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, is powered entirely by the sun. There is no back-up power source. There isn't even a paddle.
The 49-foot boat named Ra, after the ancient Egyptian sun god, features 14 solar panels that send energy to 24-volt, glass-cell batteries that run two electric motors.
"The motors are 4,000 watts. We're strictly powered by the sun," said Greer during a stop Tuesday morning at Fish Alley.
The boat drew quite a bit of attention from those passing by in more conventionally powered crafts. One man coming up behind Ra, riding a personal watercraft, heard no engine noise and made a typical inquiry.
"Is that thing all solar, no generators?" he asked. Told it was all sun power, his reply: "Wow, that's awesome."
Greer said riding the loop was on his bucket list, but when he did some research, he realized he could spend as much as $20,000 on fuel alone.
"I'm doing this on my Social Security check," Greer noted.
That's when he decided to construct a solar boat to tap into some free fuel. After a career teaching at Stanford University, working for oil companies and traveling the world with his camera, taking pictures of wild animals all over Africa, he decided he wanted a Huck Finn-type adventure right in America.
"I was a hippie. I rode around with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. I've seen everything I can see. I thought this is the last thing there is," Greer said.
He put an ad on Craig's List to find his own merry pranksters and picked up First Mate Danny "Danny Jack" Johnson, 51, of Saint Simon's Island, Ga.; and crew Suzy David, 20, of Frostproof, Fla., and Jaime Nudd, 25, of the Washington, D.C., area.
"Jaime rode mountain bikes across California. Suzy is a film student. Me, I had nothing else to do," said Johnson.
David is filming the journey while Greer fields offers to turn the adventure into a reality television show.
"We're all strangers and that's how reality shows go. It's like 'Survivor' on a boat. There's no refrigeration, heat or running water. We film a lot of grass-roots people on the way," Johnson said.
Like most reality shows, there are some arguments. Things got testy a few times on Monday when they ran aground a couple times traveling north from Cape May. David said Greer sometimes plays the "grumpy old man" on the film.
There have been situations, such as running into a northeaster in Georgia and losing their steering.
"We were going backwards. We dropped anchor and sat there for five days. There was no Internet or Facebook. People who follow us called the Coast Guard," Johnson said.
They can be followed online at www.solarboatchronicles.com
. The website has links to Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and other social media.
David, who had never even been on a boat before signing on, runs the film operation.
"I was a film student, but I prefer the hands-on experience. I realize I'll learn more just going out and doing it. It's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," David said.
Nudd, a free spirit with a love of adventure, just returned from a six-month solo journey around America when she saw the ad on Craig's List and decided three days at home was enough. She signed on to cook and help film. There is no pay, unless a television station picks up the adventure. Greer said he is fielding several offers and hopes to get the show on the air by November.
It will be a slow journey. The boat can only travel during the day and isn't all that fast.
"The top speed is 5.5 mph, with the current and wind behind us," said Johnson.
They've been averaging 20 miles per day, with 46 miles the best day, but that included favorable winds and currents. The goal is to be the first to circumnavigate the Great Loop in a boat entirely run by the sun. They have gone 2,600 miles, less than halfway, since their January departure from the west coast of Florida. They used the Suwannee River to access the Intracoastal Waterway, came through the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay and Cape May Canal.
The 5,500-pound boat, fiberglass over marine plywood, has a 22-foot beam mainly because of two pontoons that each sport four solar panels. The other panels are above the cabin. The panels power electric motors that equate to 9.9-horsepower outboards. The next jaunt is up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal and then through Canada.
Life on board is pretty Spartan. They mostly eat canned food, make tea with the sun every day, and use ice to cool whatever fresh food they have. When the sun sets, there is plenty of down time.
"Suzy reads to me at night until I fall asleep," Nudd said.
Greer is just happy to be back at sea level. He grew up in Louisiana but recently lived in Colorado Springs where "the high altitude got to me." As he looks forward to filming the fall colors as he heads down the Mississippi, he ponders whether this is his last adventure.
"I'll be 73 before this is over. That scares me, but if finances are good I'd like to do the Nile and the Amazon," said Greer. "It may sound scary, but everybody says don't go down the East River (New York) and don't go through Detroit."
Aboard the Ra, named for an Egyptian god that traveled the universe on the power of the sun, anything sounds possible.
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