PINE ISLAND — Jim Greer admits that his luck as a skipper hasn't been the greatest lately. Since departing Old Town on Father's Day, he has had to sort through a host of issues on his new boat, from a broken propeller to glitches with navigational equipment.
Then there was this weekend's appearance of Tropical Storm Debby, which threw his plans off course.
A spirit of adventure drives the 71-year-old, who claims to be the first person to pilot a solar-powered boat on an epic 5,000-mile journey up the Eastern Seaboard, across the rivers and lakes of the Midwest and back to Florida via the Mississippi River. But high winds and sunless skies were the last things he wanted to see this week.
On Sunday, winds of 50 miles per hour on the Gulf of Mexico forced Greer to point the 42-foot trihull vessel toward refuge at Pine Island. Although he had hoped to leave Tuesday, the winds got even worse, forcing the crew to wait another night tied to a seawall.
But the slight change in schedule wasn't a big deal to Greer. He launched the Ra — named for the ancient Egyptian sun god — with the expectation of adventure.
"We're doing something that's never been done before," the bearded Greer said Wednesday from his pilot's chair. "It's a challenge with a lot of unknowns. It's not going to be a luxury yacht cruise."
The semiretired photojournalist and longtime boating enthusiast is hoping to scratch off one of the last things on his bucket list by making a voyage on "the Great Loop," a circumnavigation of interconnected waterways that includes the Lake Okeechobee Waterway, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the Hudson River, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway.
During the six-month journey, Greer, videographers Beth Corwin and Greg Kimble, and technical advisers Greg Clarke and Philip Hodgetts plan to film interviews with inhabitants of the waterways for a cable TV series. In addition, they will post daily updates, videos and commentary on Twitter — @RaSolarOdyssey — and Greer's website, thesolarodyssey.com.
Powered entirely by 15 245-watt solar panels strapped to the vessel's hull and roof, the Ra sports two Torqeedo 4,000-watt electric motors that run off a current from a deck of 12-volt batteries. A separate electrical system powers GPS, radio, cellphone and onboard computers.
Shortly after launching, Greer discovered that the batteries were inadequate for heavy seas. Although able to make 12 knots on the smooth Suwannee River, the boat slowed to a crawl once it hit the Gulf of Mexico.
With rapidly increasing winds, Greer was first forced to make a landing Friday in the Homosassa River, where he sheared a propeller on submerged rocks in the narrow channel.
A former designer of specialty boats for the oil industry, Greer knew little about solar power when he built the Ra. Instead, he has relied on others to guide him, including his friend Joe Combs, who operates Solar Independence Electric in New Port Richey. Combs came up with a plan to install more solar panels and batteries.
"It should give him a little more reserve when he hits the throttle," Combs said Tuesday. "If Jim finds he needs even more at some point, it would be easy to add to that."
Greer said that even if the Ra does not convince everyone that solar is a viable major energy source, he hopes people will at least consider it as part of the equation for the future.
"I'm not really out to prove anything," Greer said as he prepared to shove off toward New Port Richey on Wednesday. "For me, it's more personal. I'm hoping to make it as enjoyable a journey as I possibly can."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or email@example.com.