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On the waterway: Solar-powered boat charts course for record books

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Jim Greer was sleeping in the laundry room at Georgetown Landing Marina during last week’s ice storm — and loving it.

“It’s the first time I’ve been warm since Nov. 15,” he said.

Greer docked his solar-powered boat, named Ra after the Egyptian sun god, and was waiting on the weather to improve before continuing a journey that started more than a year ago in the Gulf of Mexico and has taken him to Lake Huron and most of the way back.

Greer is hoping to finish a journey by solar power that will be recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records while filming an adventure that will appeal to television networks as a reality show. During his career, he’s traveled the world filming wildlife and decided to build a solar boat “just to see what happens.”

Greer, 73, has no trouble making friends and finding people who want to ride along. Mike Oliver, a marine technology student at Cape Fear Community College who came aboard in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and was with him in Georgetown, is his 45th crew member. Richard and Gwen Heusel of North Litchfield had met Greer, stayed in touch and came to the marina’s laundry room to pay him a visit Friday afternoon.

“It’s amazing,” Gwen said after going onboard the Ra. “The whole project is incredible.”

Greer was nursing a hacking cough that started in Canada and was happy with the laundry room even though Gwen advised him to move into the women’s bathroom. It’s a lot nicer, she said.

Greer built the Ra himself in 90 days and traveled 44 miles down the Suwannee River on his first day, heading for Clearwater, Fla. “I thought I’d always do that,” he said. “Boy, did I have a lot to learn.”

Greer neglected to check the weather before going into the Gulf and got a call from his pal Solar Joe, who had installed the boat’s solar panels. Joe asked if he saw any storm clouds, and Greer said there was a dark line on the horizon. “To let you know,” Joe said, “that’s Hurricane Debbie. What are you going to do out there?”

Greer, who was traveling with Joe’s sister, said he’d drop the big anchor and hang on. “So I laid out the 50-pound anchor and 250 feet of scope line and got hit by a hurricane my first day at sea,” Greer said. The Ra was in just 12 feet of water, so Greer figured the swells couldn’t be much higher. The storm blew in flat, he said, the wind and rain blowing sideways but not whipping up the ocean. Greer rode it out and headed for Clearwater where he picked up a film crew from California.

“We rode 20 miles,” Greer said, “and the first night they all got off the boat because it didn’t have air conditioning. They were supposed to be filmmakers. I’ve filmed in Africa, all over the world. You don’t have air conditioning, so you quit? Take your shirt off and jump in the water.”

He found some new crew members and crossed Florida’s Okeechobee Swamp. He got as far as Beaufort before he noticed a worrisome storm off the coast of Africa and didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. “That’s going to be one heck of a hurricane,” he said, “and it’s coming right up the East Coast. I turned around and went back to the Gulf.” Greer’s retreat was wise because Hurricane Sandy was a doozy.

He decided to wait until Jan. 11, 2013, his 72nd birthday, to begin again. He gathered a crew of four and made a few practice runs to a barrier island. One crew member brought the new diving gear he’d gotten for Christmas. “I said, ‘OK. I’ll see you in the morning.’ I haven’t heard from a one of them. They have not called. I have the guy’s tanks. He left everything: mask and snorkel,” Greer said.

Before the day was out Greer had found two other people who wanted to make the trip. “That’s all part of the show,” he said, “what it takes, what are people like. Here, I’m 72 taking off with people I don’t know anything about. This crew hopped off in the Florida keys, and Greer spent 44 days alone at sea, trying to decide what to do. He traveled north to Merritt Island, Fla., and started over.

Greer saw the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy as he motored to the Great Lakes and back. The trip has taken a lot longer than he thought, and the cold weather has been rough in a boat without heat.

The Ra is 48 feet long but draws just 22 inches of water with its twin outriggers. Two solar powered motors move the boat 3 miles per hour on average. Headwinds and choppy seas make for rough going. Dark, cloudy days don’t produce much solar power and slow things down too. “It’s turned out to be a lot more than I thought,” Greer said. “We’ve got 8,000 miles on the boat, and every time you turn the motor on you find a different experience. There’s so much to do. It would drive a normal boater crazy, but that’s the fun part to me, the challenge of doing it.”

Oliver said he had already taken the semester off from school and was working 15 hours a week at a Food Lion. “I said to myself if I’m not on that boat Monday morning I’ll hate myself for the rest of my life. That’s not an adventure I’m going to miss out on, traveling, seeing things from a different perspective instead of just driving down the road,” he said.

Greer plans to take the Ra to Brownsville, Texas, and load it on a trailer for a return trip to Canada. He plans to go down Lake Michigan to Chicago, and travel the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and end up in Mobile, Ala.

“That’s where we’re going,” he said. “When I get back to Mobile I will have completed America’s Great Loop.”

Follow Greer and the Ra at solarboatchronicles.com and their Facebook page.

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