Flanders resident spends month at sea on solar-powered boat

solar boat

It’s not uncommon for New Yorkers to head south for a few months each year. What is unusual is how Flanders resident Gary Minnick traveled to and from his sunny destination.

When Mr. Minnick decided to spend time in Fort Pierce, Fla., this past spring, he realized he had the opportunity to do something he believes no one had achieved before — make the entire round trip on a solar-powered boat.

“It was exciting,” the 69-year-old said of his month-long voyage. “I’m still reeling from it.”

When he traveled South in May, Mr. Minnick made the nearly 1,250-mile trip solo on Novella, a 29-foot former sailboat named for his mother. He was joined by his friend Jerry Donoghue of New Suffolk for the return voyage to downtown Riverhead, where the pair docked July 3.

Mr. Minnick made the solo trip in 23 days, saying it went quicker because it was easier for him to make decisions on his own. Waking up at sunrise and going to bed at sunset, Mr. Minnick described the trip as peaceful, although there were benefits to having company on the second leg, such as help with steering and navigation.

Mr. Donoghue described the trip, during which Novella was powered by 3,000 watts of solar energy and averaged 50 miles per day, as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience, never to be repeated.”

To prepare for their five-week journey home, Mr. Minnick said, the duo stocked up on foods with long shelf lives, such as cans of tuna and sardines and frozen chicken cutlets. The friends also made a few stops along the way to pick up perishable items, such as bread and fruit. Mr. Minnick said unpredictable weather was the most challenging aspect of the experience.

One of the duo’s worst days on the water came mid-trip as they crossed Port Royal Sound, near South Carolina. Rough waters continuously rocked the boat back and forth, bringing it to a complete stop in the middle of the Sound, Mr. Minnick said.

“We were happy to finish that,” he said. “We would hit a wave going along at four or five knots and then we’d go to zero. We kept stopping and going.”

While Mr. Minnick and Mr. Donoghue were obliged to make a few stops for food and to find more stable shelter, they never had to stop for gas, thanks to the energy provided by the boat’s solar panels. Mr. Minnick said his solo trip to Florida took 18 gallons of fuel and the journey home required 20.

“That’s nothing for the whole trip,” he said. “About 90 percent of the energy was solar. We could do the trip 100 percent solar, but on a [cloudy day] you would only go, like, five miles before you had to anchor.”

Mr. Minnick, who formerly owned Go Solar in Aquebogue and Flanders and has worked in the solar energy field since the 1970s, converted Novella himself after finding it for sale on Shelter Island in 2012. The vessel is equipped with sleeping quarters and a refrigerator, toaster and stove. On its starboard side, a sign reads “ NY or bust!” in all capital letters. Mr. Minnick removed the boat’s mast and added a cabin that was sturdy enough to hold solar panels.

This isn’t the first time Mr. Minnick has converted a boat from motorized to solar power. He created Peconic Sun, Long Island’s first solar-powered boat, in 1999. Four years later, he steered his 24-foot boat Third Wave around Long Island in 11 days, marking the first time a solar-powered vessel completed the 330-mile voyage.

“I wanted to show the world that you can do it,” Mr. Minnick said. “That you can use solar on other things besides your house.”

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Photo: Solar pioneer Gary Minnick (left) of Flanders and crewmate Jerry Donoghue of New Suffolk arrived in Riverhead Sunday morning after their journey from Florida on Mr. Minnick’s 29-foot solar boat Novella. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)