As I walked around, past the cafes and restaurants next to the Ria de Alvor, already wearing my life jacket, I got several funny looks from passersbys and I was reminded of the ‘Back to the Future’ films where Marty Mcfly goes back in time and his sleeveless red jacket that may have been the height of fashion in 1985, had everybody in 1955 saying “Hey check out this guy. He’s wearing a life preserver”. Now here we are in 2020 (5 years further into the future than the Back to the Future films ever went) and wearing a life jacket around town is seen as odd once again.

I stood on the pontoon at Alvor, our agreed rendezvous. As I waited I saw several little dingy boats burning around with their noisy petrol engines. One of them came to dock at the pontoon but as they got close their engine stopped, and as they drifted away towards the shore the crew panicked to grab oars, while the captain tried to frantically pull the engine cable to try and get it to start. Luckily it sprung to life before they hit land and they sped rapidly forward and managed to dock.

In sharp contrast to this was the vessel I was waiting for, I didn’t hear coming at all. It just glided silently past all the sailboats in the distance until I could see the smiling faces of the people I was waiting for. Derek and his wife Sonia waved happily to me as they came to a silent and graceful dock.

The canoe originally bought from Decathlon had, as I suspected, serious Back to the Future vibes. If ‘Doc’ were to have a boat I’m sure it would be something like this. It had a solar panel mounted over head and one on the back. Since the back panel was between Derek and the electric motor mounted on the rear, he has ingeniously set it up so that he can still steer the boat with a long handle that reaches from the engine up to where he sits. He has a remote control on him that, because of a control box mounted on the back, allows him to toggle between speed modes and also raise the engine should they get into shallow water. He also showed me his emergency tool he could reach back with to turn the speed down manually should the remote control fail (or fall in the water).

I asked, as I climbed aboard with Derek (the real life Doc) for a little ride around all the sailboats, what he’d done when he was younger? And that I was imagining that he surely must have been some kind of inventor? He said he worked in I.T. But when I pushed him further though he told me he used to make robots. “What kind?”, I asked eagerly. Turns out he made those big robotic arms, you know, the kind they use to make cars? So, in fact Derek didn’t just make machines - he made machines that make machines.

I began to relax about Derek’s engineering skills. He clearly knew what he was doing. And as we zipped out slowly and silently around the boats I did feel extremely relaxed. Especially after he assured me that his canoe was virtually impossible to flip over. It was quite wonderful to be bobbing around in a canoe with all the silence and peace that it brings - but without having to splash around paddling. I said as much to Derek as we carved our way around a sailing boat waving at the sailors who had come up on deck to gawp at us in the same way you might imagine they would if Docs time machine had in fact landed in the lagoon. Derek said that this was exactly the idea. They were getting older and didn’t have so much muscle power anymore, so he decided to enlist the sun as a crewmate to do the paddling for him.

As we docked the ‘DeLorean’ again and went for coffee, I quizzed them more about their lives. Derek has lived in America and also France where he met Sonia. After a trip to Portugal in 2013 they realised they loved it so much they decided to move here permanently a year later.

Even though I was thinking of him more like Doc it turns out he has a touch of Marty about him too, as he said his real passion was blues guitar and that he started playing when he was 11. I was tempted, as my mind kept swimming with Back to the Future references, to ask him what the band at the ‘Under the Sea dance’ asked Marty - to ‘play something that really cooks’.

Turns out he used to teach online classes for blues guitar while he was in France, as well as giving lessons on how to write. I asked him if that means he’s written something? Turns out he has. A sci-fi book called ‘Alex Q’. A gender neutral name for a robot (of course). I wonder if Alex Q plays guitar too? I didn’t ask.

Getting back aboard the boat, Derek and Sonia told me that they had bought it as a way of trying to change their routine a little and get them to do something different. They now, weather and sea conditions permitting, get out on the Ria as often as they can and usually dock for coffee in Alvor.

It’s been a little trial and error since they bought the boat in June getting their systems shipshape, and making sure the work that it entails putting up Derek’s solar system doesn’t outweigh the effort it would take to simply paddle in the first place. Which it did, quite literally, when they first started as Derek had to heave a 30 kilo battery into place every time they went out. Now though, since this is the future we are living in, Derek has got himself a battery that weighs a much more manageable 3 kilos.

They love the peace that they can find out on the water, the adventures they find themselves in and how it makes them new friends, as people are always amazed at their vessel and wave at them as they drift by on the waves.
Derek and Sonia set off again, and as they skimmed smoothly away across the water without any noise or pollution, the golden ball of fire was high above them in the sky reflecting and sparkling beautifully off the water, while simultaneously, powering their watercraft. I reflected myself, that this is the future - and there’s no going back.

If you would like to get hold of Derek, then in true futuristic fashion simply use your smartphone to scan the accompanying QR code. It will take you to his page and he would be happy to answer anybody’s questions about how to make your own sun powered floating time machine.