A French navigator is trying to sail the Northwest Passage solo — in a solar-powered boat

Are solar-powered boats practical for the Arctic? One explorer wants to find out.

By Melody Schreiber - July 13, 2018

This summer, French navigator Anne Quéméré is undertaking a solo expedition across the Northwest Passage in a six-meter boat powered entirely by the sun. She will attempt to journey from Tuktoyaktuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island in Nunavut, a 3,500-kilometer trip spanning much of Canada’s far north.

Quéméré’s departure will depend upon ice and weather conditions, and her arrival will depend upon how the trip proceeds.

“No one has ever tried to navigate a solar boat in these areas,” she says, “so we have no idea how fast it can go.”

In a blog post on Thursday, she wrote that she remained in Tuktoyaktuk after conditions forced her to abandon her first attempt at departing.

Although the trip itself will be undertaken by Quéméré alone, she has had some help from nonprofits and businesses. Her project is supported by DreamTime, a nonprofit focused on environmental issues.

And the airliner Cargolux has also provided logistical support — flying the prototype boat across the Atlantic, from Luxembourg to Calgary, free of charge.

Cargolux’s involvement points to the potential for future shipping vessels, from boats to planes, to be powered by the sun.

“This is not the first time Cargolux has supported a ground-breaking solar-powered expedition,” says Moa Sigurdardottir, head of communications for the company. In 2013 and 2015, Cargolux transported the Solar Impulse airplane to and from its missions around the world.

The carrier’s interest in solar-powered transportation stems in part, Sigurdardottir says, from its focus on sustainable projects. But solar-powered vessels could be one way to facilitate future shipments in the Arctic.

During the summer, when the Northwest Passage is ice-free enough to attempt navigation, the region receives up to 24 hours of sunlight a day. (Of course, in winter, when a solar-powered boat would be dead in the water, ice would make such a journey doubly impossible.)

Sigurdardottir cautions that such solar transportation projects may not be scalable yet. The Solar Impulse aircraft, for instance, was lightweight, unlike many traditional cargo planes. However, she says, that project nevertheless “proved to the world that such undertakings are feasible.”

“This shows that the industry is evolving and such endeavors are possible at a certain scale,” she says, “which broadens the realm of possibilities for the long-term future.”

In the meantime, she says, airlines are also exploring other sustainable transportation initiatives, including more renewable fuel sources.

For Quéméré, the trip is important to “show what solar energy is capable of today, how it improved in the past years and will still improve in the years to come,” she says. “This will not change our way of living, but it may open new doors for new utilities.”

This is not the first solo adventure for Quéméré. Previously, she rowed across the Atlantic and kited across the Pacific alone — without even a satellite phone. On this trip, she is aware of the dangers, and she will carry a sat phone and a distress beacon.

“But the area I am traveling to is vast and it can be difficult, even impossible, to reach me,” she says. “I guess I am an optimistic soul and always see the sunny side of life.”