A Solar Sailor ferry would hardly be the first Dubai landmark with a touch of Australian influence. Indeed, James Wyndham of Australia?s trade commission Austrade jokes of a "kangaroo mafia" taking on such formidable networks as the Irish "murphia".

However, one of Solar Sailor?s vessels could become the first Aussie-assisted Dubai landmark to take inspiration from an insect.

Vessels using Solar Sailor technology certainly have a distinctive appearance. From the centre of the boat rise two series of wings ? solar collectors that can lift and swivel to take advantage of both sun and wind. As these rise up, the ferries look a bit like space-age water beetles about to take flight.

Eureka moment

And this is no coincidence, says Dr Robert Dane, the man behind Solar Sailor?s innovative technology. "The eureka moment for me was reading a book about wings in insects. These first grew as buds to collect solar energy. Well, if insects evolved wings as solar collectors and used them to fly, then we could use solar collectors to sail," he says.

This insight has now been put into practice in many forms around the world. In the United States, a team is currently working on creating a fleet of tiny unmanned vessels to patrol seaways beyond the reach of satellite. A couple of 600-passenger ferries now ply their way between San Francisco and Alcatraz.

In Dr Dane?s native Australia, solar wings may shortly power tankers bringing water from Kimberly to Perth.

Oddly, though, Dr Dane?s light-bulb moment came when he was a GP in a seaside town with no experience of ship-design whatsoever. "I love medicine. I did it absolutely 100 per cent until halfway through my 38th year. I?d been to a solar boat race and the guy who was winning had a panel facing the sun. When the wind picked up he took it off because it was going to tip the boat over. I just thought that?s crazy," he says.

Career shift

Dr Dane walked away thinking about how to build a solar sailing boat. He started to read books about sails rather than medical journals.

One night he woke up with the solution ? "you do it with a wing sail" ? and soon abandoned his career to pursue what he believes will be the future shape of all shipping. But, in truth, his career shift is less startling than it first appears.

"My father was in the navy. My grandfather was a ship?s captain. My uncle was a ship?s captain. He used to run boats from Melbourne to some of the roughest water in the world," he says.

Commercial ambassador

Dr Dane?s rangy frame, gimlet eye and restlessness certainly seem more suited to a quarterdeck than a surgery. Given his intense air, it was also perhaps handy that ? as a result of a strange meeting ? the company has a commercial ambassador in the form of ex-prime minister Bob Hawke.

This January, when they visited Dubai together, Hawke gave his version of the first encounter. "I was entertaining the president of Germany on a harbour cruise and I saw this lonely, miserable streak standing by himself.

I thought he didn?t seem a bad sort of guy so I talked to him and he told me what he?d done," jokes Hawke.

Solar Sailor is now the only company Hawke represents as chairman.

The exclusive agent in Dubai is GPS ? a contact established when, at a dinner organised by Austrade, he ran into his friend Jeff O?Brien.

As part of Solar Sailor?s exclusive agent GPS, O?Brien now represents the company in the UAE.


O?Brien shares with Dr Dane both an entrepreneurial streak and an articulated life path. His arrival in Dubai, where he is helping to launch the current armada of golf courses is something of a surprise even to him.

"Right from 4 years old I was never going to be anything else but a golf pro," he says. "It?s funny how it works out."

A never-was, rather than a has-been, is how O?Brien rates himself as a player. But as a coach he was among Australia?s best.

Back in the early 1990s this also brought him into contact with Hawke, whose coach suggested O?Brien when the Sultan of Brunei needed a trainer for his national team.

"Any recommendation Bob makes he takes seriously," says O?Brien. "We got introduced and we just got on. We just enjoy each other?s company."

Blue highways

Dr Dane is keen to see his idea transform the world. He aims to set up production in Dubai to cater for diverse markets across the region.

As fossil fuels run out and land transport seizes up, he sees his green technology helping to build what the United Nations envisages as a dense network of "blue highways."

In Dubai, though, O?Brien identifies Solar Sailor?s chief selling point as being the waterborne equivalent of a hybrid car. For the residents of offshore developments, its ferries would cut out noise, water and air pollution.

"There is a need for low-wash boats that have zero emissions among offshore developments," says Hawke.
"Most other boats would have a negative there in that they create wash and pollution. We can turn that problem into a positive and a really eye-catching statement to the world."

The technology

Solar Sailor?s green technology is a form of "hybrid marine power".

It harnesses sun and wind energy and combines this with power from electricity or fuel. Energy from the sun and wind is collected with solar wings.

A computer angles these to track both the sun and wind. In extreme conditions, the wings fold back against the boat. While sun and wind power are sufficient to power a ferry at relatively low speeds, transport between Dubai and a development such as the World could also involve conventional power sources.

In areas where pollution and wash would be an issue, the ferry would use renewable energy.

In open sea, this could be boosted with electricity or fuel.  See www.solarsailor.com.au