A Solar Powered Canoe


I had a year to think about what kind of boat to build. The spell had been cast among our people, the next slow boat flotilla would be on June 6, 2016 when we imagined that All the Punks would Float. Dream big! When I interviewed for my new job in Duluth I revealed that there were two events I must attend: our wedding ceremony in October and All Punks Float next year.

In my life I have participated in building several boats on the cheap. The first was a plywood & fiberglass dinghy, the second a huge plywood & fiberglass V-hull shanty boat, third a sleek duck body plywood & fiberglass pontoon boat, and fourth a plywood & anything that floats stuffed inside pontoon shanty boat.

This time I was thinking of doing something a lot more simple.

Yes, something that already floated without needing money to be poured into it. In our overgrown backyard sat the aluminum canoe still painted gold from our wedding. Yeah, the golden canoe! I had already paddled a canoe from Minneapolis to Winona so that was not compelling to me, I wanted a little motor on it but I didn’t want the pollution of fossil fuel. I just published a book about climate change called Generation Snow, how could I blaze out carbon emissions while handing out my environmental justice novel? Not that the world is looking to me for an example of right living, but still, I gotta sleep at night.
I had an idea while tearing apart our washing machine one afternoon. The thing had died and so I was dismantling it for scrap, saving the perforated stainless steel washing drum for a backyard fire pit. After gutting the bowels of the beast I held the electric motor in my hands and the wheels were turning. Hmmm. Spin cycle. On previous boats we had built gas powered long tail motors, and on other boats we had bought a Chinese diesel outboard that burned bio-diesel, and on another boat I had built a pedal powered paddle wheel. Standing there holding the electric motor from the washing machine I thot: Build an ELECTRIC long-tail boat motor? I had never heard of anyone doing that. In my younger days I probably would have gone all-in on the project, but in my wiser years I did some research and found there was a reason why no one had done that. They sell excellent electric outboards for dirt cheap. They’re called trolling motors. I was set to spend the $100 on a brand new 30 pounds of thrust electric trolling motor. Then at Mayday in Minneapolis I talked to my friend Darla who had a used one for sale, $50! Deal! No way could I even build an electric long-tail motor for cheaper. We’ll save that challenge for the true apocalypse.

To attach the trolling motor to the canoe which had no transom I pulled out a 2×4 and did some cutting, drilling, and two big long bolts, washers, and nuts later I had a solid transom to side mount the motor and also a structure to mount a pole for the rear white light. Night running is one of my favorite things while boating in a flotilla. The lights on bow and stern moving back and forth under power or slowly spinning when the motors were off, like a group of river faeries drunk on fermented wild grapes celebrating the birth of a baby beaver.

The solar powered canoe was coming together. Next thing to get was 2 fresh off the shelf deep cycle batteries. Old batteries are like old cars, you never know how they were treated and they might be junk. I bought two 100amp deep cycle batteries and hooked them up in parallel, married from the start, this is best for the battery’s long life. Now to make it challenging I decided to buy a solar panel and attach that to the canoe so the battery bank could charge while on the water. Most of the research about using solar panels on boats said it was a waste of time and that you might as well charge them at home with a solar panel and then transfer the battery onto the boat. This is obviously the view of what we Slow Boaters call a Weekend Warrior, someone who wants to go fast on the water and who has no time to let the sun recharge their battery because they have to get back to work tomorrow. On a two week journey from Minneapolis to Winona, there was plenty of time to recharge the batteries! I bought my 100 watt panel online for $115, almost a buck-a-watt. The solar charge controller cost $30 online, this item prevents the solar panel from sending too much juice to your motor. When all was hooked up and running on the river, the amount of juice I used motoring all day was the same that the panel pulled in, break even! I had a backup battery pack but I never had to use it. How fast did I go? Faster than two people lazily paddling a canoe! Solar panels become cheaper and more powerful every day. Is this the future? Yes it is.

On my solar powered canoe I brought along a plug-in battery charger and a 100 foot long extension cord, and I was happy I did because the charging system was not working proper at first. In the usual tradition of the slow travelers I had waited until the last minute and did not have the opportunity to test out the system. Breakdowns in small towns are simply opportunities to meet and get to know strangers, that’s the slow traveler’s way. I found power outlets in public parks and marinas where the electricity was free, so I plugged in, chatted up some locals, and went to town for Mexican food while the batteries charged. I was ready to pay a fee for charging at the marinas but they happily plugged me in for free. It seems the era of Electric Vehicle charging stations has not made it to Midwestern recreational boating. Get it while it’s good! Juice baby juice! The thing about charging off the grid is that most of it is fossil fuel, but an increasing amount is generated by wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources, depending on the state you are in. The amount of renewable energy in a gallon of gas is none.


I had exhausted my electronic repair skills with the solar panel situation. A companion in the flotilla named Jason offered to have a look. He examined the back of the solar panel, removed the cover of the diode box, and a screw fell out leaving one of the wires hanging. A loose screw! Could it be so simple? We replaced the screw and the solar charge controller lit up, indicating the solar panel was active and charging the batteries. “Yes! Yes!” Jason and I did a little happy dance as the electrons flowed. The sun was shining and everything was now perfect. Somebody owed somebody a drink at the next available opportunity.
The trolling motor was silent, it’s little copper wire wound heart humming away at the water right next to mine. In the quiet I could hear louder boats from far away, I could hear the ducks as they flew over and songbirds in the trees on shore, I could hear the down beat of eagles wings. In the quiet I could talk to people who were on shore or floating with motors off, I could hear the water rippling away from the bow of the canoe. This made me smile. It was magical.

Only on the last night of the flotilla did people ask to ride on the solar powered canoe as passengers, probably because I had a huge bin full of an excessive amount of trail mix occupying the seating space. Leaving the generator show after the cops showed up on that Wisconsin beach, Ben and I zipped upstream under the bridges of the back channel in Winona while he paddled for extra zip. I realized I could have had passengers all along, we were flying against the current, but since it was an experimental set-up I was trying to conserve the batteries the whole time. Turns out I had plenty of juice. I should have brought a 12 volt sound system and been kicking out the jams! Dancing in a canoe is not recommended, but there were plenty of other wide body boats that could have hosted dance parties. Dang it. Perhaps the future holds an electric flotilla, and we will do the worm across rooftops while asses shake on boats sailing into the starry night.

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*The solar power set up used on this canoe trip was donated to the Sacred Stones Camp out on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to help defend the people and the land and the water from an oil pipeline company (Dakota Access Pipeline) hell bent on making money over any other concern. No DAPL! Water Is Life.


2 thoughts on “A Solar Powered Canoe

  1. reading your article,i must say I really enjoyed it. I’m building a solar powered pontoon wooden pontoons like you did with the snowball,except I intend to fiberglass the pontoons. the toons will be 23.5″ wide and 18″ tall with 8 chambers,4 of witch will have water bottles for flotation,just in case. the green machine ill be 14 x6 feet and will have a deck built from 2x3s and a 6×6 sun deck which will hold 2 100 watt solar panels,charging 4 deepcycle batteries and powering the lights and stereo system. it will also have 2 built in coolers and a live well. i have a 55 lb thrust trolling motor for propulsion,but am building the transom strong enough to hold a 25 hp gasmotor for the river,since i live right on the Missouri river. i will use this mostly for fishing at Truman resovoir,so the trolling mtor will work real good. keep building them boats.


    • Nice! That sounds like a good set up. I have heard that having a higher powered trolling motor is actually more efficient on electricity usage since there are more windings on the motor, and this is more efficient. In my experience I would protect the solar controller with some water proofing, in a little sealed box perhaps, I think mine got wet and shorted out the usb charging ports. Good luck to you, and happy boating! -Rob


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