One man’s experiment with electric propulsion

Electric vehicles (EV) are the future of light duty vehicle, with some forecast that put internal combustion engines (ICE) to soon be less competitive when compared to EVs. Other experts are more conservative on how soon this is going to happen, but it seems clear that ICE is fated to become obsolete as EVs are “the rational, economic choice”.

The simple yet powerful setup for Tesla S
The simple yet powerful setup for Tesla S  (photo by Oleg Alexandrov)

But what is the situation with marine electric propulsion? Can small sailboat be propelled by electric motors?

Over the water, the most common form of auxiliary propulsion for sailboats over 25ft is marine diesel engine. This proven technology benefits from many years of successful use and a well established industry of dealers and technical repairs. It’s easy to say that the diesel ICE dominates the market on sailboats. Before owning a boat with electric propulsion, my only experience was with diesel engines and, less often, gasoline outboards.

The engine room of a small sailboat
The engine room of a small sailboat (photo by PHGCOM )

THE DIESEL BIAS
Diesel fuel has a couple of good features: a high flash point that allows a relatively safe handling and a good energy density that provides satisfying motoring range with limited storage required. Today new, smaller and more efficient units fit easily in every engine room. Marine diesel give a sailboat an extended range under power and enough horse power to face any difficult situation.
When I first faced electric propulsion it was a quirky novelty, something I was not prepared to deal with. The most important discovery was that we all share a diesel engine bias. The common temptation is to approach the topic trying to ask the question if electric propulsion can replace the diesel engine.

After carefully going through a lot of research, re-doing myself the installation, and using it for more than 2000 nautical miles, I finally have an answer.
No, electric propulsion can’t replace the diesel engine. What it did for me was to change the way I see and use auxiliary propulsion.

A DIFFERENT MINDSET
It is common practice on a sailboat to turn on the engine not only when you need to maneuver around tight docks or anchorages, but also when wind or wave direction shifts to an undesired angle, when the speed drops under a certain threshold, if the battery charge is low or to fight against tides and currents. No matter what is the source of the annoyance, it takes little effort to fix it. Just turn the ignition key on, wait one second and put the throttle in gear and the problem is solved.
Fuel and general consumables are what sit between the choice of motoring or not motoring, and they are usually very easy to find everywhere and reasonably cheap. This mindset implies that power is abundant and available at all times, we can get to destination in less time, going through very little trouble.
Electrical propulsion on the other hand, requires a switch from this mindset, from considering power abundant to scarce. Scarce however doesn’t mean non-existent, it simply means that your reserve has to be cared for and maintained.

ANATOMY OF OUR “LOW COST” SYSTEM
Tranquility, our Columbia 29 built in 1965 is powered by an inboard electric propulsion. The conversion from presumably an Atomic 4, was performed by a former owner who installed an earlier model from the company Electric Yacht. The motor is a simple DC Eltek brushed motor mounted on a 2 to 1 gear, and it works at 36Vdc-65Vdc (48Vdc nominal), with a maximum peak of 130Amps and 100Amps continuous. The power conversion is estimated equal to 6 horse power. It is small and weights a little more than 40 pounds.

Here is a video of Tranquility’s conversion to electric propulsion:

At the time of purchase the boat and the propulsion system needed serious updates, and we were forced to replace the existing battery bank with a new one. We opted for eight 6v Trojan T-125 batteries connected in series for a total capacity of 240ah at 48v. The reasoning behind the choice of a “traditional” lead acid 6v battery is both economical and practical. Lead acid batteries are at least five time cheaper than Lifepo4, and our sailing budget is very limited. Also, in case of a single battery failure it would be easier to replace one “golf cart” battery in different places of the planet, without dealing with expensive shipping and duties.
We use wind, hydro, the grid and fossil fuels to o recharge our batteries. In details, we installed a 48v wind turbine, a 20amp AC to DC battery charger powered by the grid when we are at the dock and by a portable gas generator when at sea, the 12×12 fixed three blade propeller that regenerates power under sail when boat speeds exceed 5 knots.

CRUISING WITH ELECTRIC PROPULSION: THIS IS HOW WE DO IT        With our current system we are able to motor in calm conditions at 3 knots while drawing 20 amps for approximately 15miles before we need any recharge. This estimated range is considered an ideal situation and we try to avoid to use our motor for that long. If we have to motor for more than 1 hour for instance, we would use our gas generator on deck to give some power back to the batteries. The motor rarely runs at more than 20 amps, and when it happens my hearth races as if they were taking my blood rather than electrons from the battery plates.
If we are drawing more than 20 amps it’s because we are fighting headwinds, currents in a narrow passage or a maneuver that requires high thrust, situations that should not last long if we plan our sail wisely and that not affect too much our power reserve. We always try to be very conservative with our batteries but at the same time we are happy to know that we can demand more power if conditions arise. How little we can motor became a game for us, and we feel particularly accomplished when we don’t use it at all.

Motor sailing on the Intracoastal Waterway
Motor sailing on the Intracoastal Waterway

OUR TESTING GROUNDS
Coastal sailing is the most demanding situation for auxiliary propulsion because of narrows, currents, navigational hazards that make sailing hard work and sometimes extremely time consuming. For these reasons, most of our sailing is done offshore where we don’t need auxiliary propulsion. Since we fixed our boat and hooked up the electric propulsion we have been sailing the East Coast of the United States from Massachussets to Georgia round trip with electric propulsion. As we are planning to take on more distance sailing, we considered that a successful test.
Occasionally we useD the ICW, especially on the southbound trip when we went from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC. In that situation, time was a constraint as we were cruising in cold weather and our priority was to get south as fast as we could.
One day for example we needed to sail from Manteo NC, to Hatteras, NC via the Pamlico Sound. The forecast gave us very light wind for the next day, not great sailing conditions. If we waited, we would have to face strong headwinds for the rest of the week and get stuck there. Considering the scenario, We decided to leave early, hooked up our gas generator to motor all the way in a flat Pamlico Sound. Because of the short winter days we arrived at night but once there we had no worries about when to leave for the next leg of the trip that was done under sail.
The rest of the trip we sailed and motor-sailed along “the ditch”. A gentle breeze is sufficient to sail faster than we would motor, and we also tolerate to move slower if that is possible under sail. Carefully timing the tides we can motor faster using less power and so our journey is entirely planned in consideration of weather patterns and current.

THE ART OF COMPROMISE
Kate and I live aboard and cruise full time. So far electric propulsion has never been a concern, nor we live it as a limitation. After some adjustments in our cruising style, we quickly adapted to it. Cruising with an electric inboard propulsion means to compromise. The reduced range limits our possibilities in terms of routes and landing options. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave earlier from places we like to take advantage of a favorable weather window. Sometimes we had to stay longer in places we liked less. More than once a sudden calm, a favorable tide or other “disturbances” led us to places we din’t plan to visit. With this limitations, we learned that it’s not a coincidence that most of the main harbors are built in locations accessible under sail in most conditions, as historically that was the only way to get there.

ELECTRIC PROPULSION MAKES BETTER SAILORS
Electric propulsion forces us to keep sailing even when the boat speed goes below 3 knots. These limits had forced me to work on having a better sailboat. Because of limited power we keep our bottom as clean as possible (I often dive myself or hire a professional when I don’t feel like). Because of our limited power, we purchased better sails for light air and installed a retractable bowsprit to increase our sail area. We spend more time studying landings on the charts, including alternative points of refuge in our planning and always trying to match the tide and the current. Paying closer attention to weather is another consequence of dealing with a limited range. Even if it would not be our first choice sometimes we have to leave at night or arrive with the dark. In other words, our sailing skill and navigation competence have improved thanks to electric propulsion.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS
What I am doing today is a sort of a beta test, the science fair version of astrophysics. Considering our limited budget and resources, the results are encouraging and what is really exciting is that there are optimistic signs that this technology will be more and more viable for future use and diffusion in the marine industry.
Even if we are being thrifty, we are aware how our battery bank have a relatively short lifespan. Well cared lead-acid batteries can last 7-10 years but the test of electrical propulsion is a harsh one, that’s why we are doubly careful on how we treat how power reserve
With this in mind, I look forward to what may be available in 2020 in terms of batteries and their cost. The electric car industry, Tesla in primis, has shown the world that the technology is already here and that only scale production and policy are the limits to a wider diffusion. The marine industry is opening up to LiFePo4 technology for power storage, and even if today is still very expensive, there is no need for technological breakthroughs, just a more mature industry and a wider market.
I would use Lifepo4 batteries today if I could afford them. This way I would extend my motoring range by 40% at 50% the weight of my actual setup. In this way I would be less concerned to push down harder on the throttle if I feel like, or worry about the time between full recharges, as lead plate sulfation would not be an issue. I this way I would feel more confident and leave behind our gasoline generator. The much decreased weight would give me better sailing and motoring performance in return. In other words, power will still be “scarce” but less so.

A SMALL MINORITY
We rarely encounter other cruisers with electric propulsion (but thanks to the internet we met a guru and now we know some others) and we feel that somehow we are an anomaly, especially when it’s a calm day and other vessels motor at full steam, while we bob around with full sails trying to catch any breeze and spending very long time to cover few miles. Sometimes it’s not fun. We are lucky that our sailing doesn’t have to follow a particularly strict schedule, so it’s not dramatic either.
When we purchased our boat the type of auxiliary propulsion was not among the most important criteria in our selection, and the fact that Tranquility came with electric propulsion was somehow a coincidence. We thought that we could any time switch to a different system if we wanted to, but after trying it we got intrigued and realized that even with its limitations electric propulsion works for us.

Today electric propulsion would be my first choice for a sailboat up to 35ft. Its minimum maintenance, the fact that is quiet, reliable and simple and has no fumes from fuel and oil are the perks that balance the labor that takes to sail more, which coincidently is why we are on the water in the first place.

Walking in America

We are living a very peculiar lifestyle, we get to experience situations that very few people have access to. The good and the bad, like walking on a disused railway track like iconic vagabonds.

It happened yesterday, when we took our much needed stroll to the grocery store to gather provisions, 2.7 miles away from where Tranquility is docked. It may seem far, but to us it is a reasonable distance to cover for food. Walking gives us a nice opportunity to see the places we are visiting, have sometimes meaningful conversations, exercise. It took us almost an hour to get there, walking in the countryside of the Delmarva southern tip, passing by a golf course, fields of cotton, horse ranches and a cemetery. The path was not well suited for pedestrians, but at least traffic was not too bad, and the mild and sunny afternoon was a special treat.

Cotton fields near Cape Charles VA
Cotton fields near Cape Charles VA

When I walk in America I always feel a little bit subversive. First I always notice that nobody else is doing it. I am of course not talking about big cities, or downtown strips where people walk purposely on sidewalks that keep them safe from traffic. In that case they probably just parked the car not far away or left the train to cover the last steps to get to their destinations.

I am talking about walking in city outskirts, suburbs, small towns and strip malls. As live aboard cruisers we end up in random places where we need to get supply, or just visit particular sites, and we don’t have a car, mainly because we cannot carry one with us onboard I guess. Everywhere we need to go, we go on foot, hire a cab or rent a car if that requires long traveling. And we feel strange. Drivers give you “the look” (a combination of astonishment, curiosity and pity ) as they pass you, some of them even press on the pedal trying to “rolling coal” or honk to acknowledge your presence. It’s no coincidence that roadsigns state “stop for pedestrian” rather than “stop for people”.

With no alternatives McDonalds become our only watering hole. This one had a nice map that shows where we are
With no alternatives McDonalds become our only watering hole. This one had a nice map that shows where we are

Walking is becoming more and more dehumanizing. Pioneers who once used to walk through plain and savannas are now regarded as “pedestrians”, somebody who is in the way of the traffic flow. If this sounds a little too dramatic just consider for a second the very basic concept of “Jaywalking”, which happens when a pedestrian crosses a roadway where regulations do not permit doing so. It is considered an infraction but in some jurisdictions, it is a misdemeanor or requires a court appearance.

What happens where there are not designated paths for pedestrian? Would that be a case where walking becomes a criminal act? “Jaywalking” is a clear sign that the road belongs to cars. That’s why we felt somehow safer when we walked alongside the railroad tracks, luckily not in use anymore. When we walk a random intersection we often ask ourselves if an officer would be entitled to fine us for Jaywalking. If you walk in America you know that it’s not always clear where you are supposed to step around intersections.

People we get to talk to always offer us rides or the use of their car out of kindness, when they learn about our walking intentions. I figure they must be concerned about our safety because to their eyes it is abnormal to walk few miles for groceries. It’s not just that, it is straight-out dangerous.

Every time we hav to explain that it’s ok for us, that this is how we exercise and add other reasons to motivate this bizarre behavior of walking. Plus, on our boat we don’t have very much floor area so walking is very enjoyable every time we have a chance to do it.

The lack of safe walking paths all along the east coast is discouraging. The more people stop walking the more trails and walking path are disappearing. I am sure urban planners like Kate would have sophisticated explanations why America is so badly designed for walking, but it seems reasonable to boil it all down to one main responsible: cars.

Everything in America is designed around cars, the most important form of transportation, in particular commercial areas like strip malls, shopping plazas and such.

When we were living in Georgia, the sight of a person walking on the side of the road would trigger a big flag. I remember saying this to Kate: “Oh look at that guy, he’s walking (not jogging) the causeway… that’s a big flag over there” meaning that when a somebody  in civilian clothes walks somewhere the reason must be a problematic one: a broken down vehicle, a homeless situation, too poor to own a car, a person up to no good. “Can you imagine being there? With this heat?”

Now that we don’t own a car anymore our point of view completely switched. Now we are the anomaly, the vagrants, the subversives. At a certain moment during our walk, Kate stopped and looked at me saying: “I feel weird, we are not supposed to be doing this”.

“You are right” I said, “It shouldn’t take us three hours to do groceries, it all should happen faster, so we can do more things”. Time is a valuable resource, therefore it is better to do things as quickly as possible, especially moving, at the expenses of something that makes us truly human like walking.

Walking upright is one of the basic human characteristics, a revolution that boosted our survival skills allowing humans to walk faster and farther, facing up to spot potential dangers, and liberating our upper arms to accomplish more tasks. It is sad how today walking is somehow endangered, how fitbits and other exercise apps had to be invented to force people to walk more. Walking is so unusual that it changed name: all becomes a workout and people can’t wait to go hiking during weekends, to regain the health we lost for not walking in the first place.

I like to walk, a lot. I think that together with sailing it is my favorite form of transportation. Walking is even cheaper, you only need a pair of good shoes, and that only if you are picky walker. Any shoes are fine.

Walking is becoming more and more a privilege, regarded only to who have the time to afford it or to who live in communities where walking is not a russian roulette played with cars.

Or to people that have no alternative, like us.

Living on a boat has its limitations

It took some effort to pull away from the coast. We are growing fonder of social interactions, family, friends, random people watching on a NYC train. We spent good part of early fall visiting people, re-establishing connections in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York City but also back in my home place, northern Italy. We met newborns and introduced each other to old friends and colleagues on both continents. As much as we are embracing an hermit-like lifestyle relationship and social interactions seem to grow stronger, as if quantity of interaction was not a good indicator of their qualities. This sailing life is not exactly as sequestered as one could think.

Once again we have been adopted by a kind family of Fairhaveners, and by the community at large. We have always felt like at home there, but eventually, after all we wanted to do was brushed off the wish list and after we enjoyed time with kindred spirits, we had no other excuse to linger in the ever cooler South Coast of Massachusetts and eventually we had to sail South. A pilgrim is thankful for the hospitality, but they know when it’s time to leave.

And so we left with the same destination in mind as three years earlier, this time on a more outfitted boat, a better stocked pantry and a tireless helmsman, our Norvane self-steering. The memory of the previous trip had faded in a blur of discomfort and fast downwind sailing. Going offshore in the North Atlantic in November is no joke under any circumstance, and this time we had it worse.

north atlantic sailing route
north atlantic sailing route

Relentless westerlies winds kept us far offshore, more than we actually desired to, pushing us dangerously close to the outskirts of the Gulf Stream. At first it was a spanking breeze, that later became near gale condition from WNW. Heeled on a close hauled course with nothing but a small portion of the mainsail and the staysail, pounding into increasingly bigger waves, Tranquility made slow steady progress to windward. The forecast pictured an approaching cold front bringing strong Northerlies. We were looking forward to it but the weather was late to the meeting and so we could only keep our boat bow to the waves, which was hard but safer than have the breakers on the beam. At that point we would see ten feet high waves, crest to trough.

Finally the Northerlies came so we sailed on a broad reach with winds and waves on our starboard quarter. Immediately the boat’s speed took off. It was adrenalinic. I had to take the helm from the Norvane and carefully anticipate winds and gust to avoid Tranquility taking off on the wave shoulder, accelerating to windward and exposing her beam to the breaking crests. Soon the companionway was boarded up as some of the crests were dumping gallons of water into the cockpit and on top of us. Kate and I had our fair share of showers from “rogue waves” as we called them. Down from our bunks we could hear the slosh of ocean water all over the deck, followed by the watch keeper’s curses.

Eventually I grew too weary of steering and decided to take the mainsail down completely and running on the staysail only. The boat immediately slowed down and became more docile, the Norvane flawlessly kept her on course as I switched roles with Kate. Winds and waves conjured to give us a good angle of approach to Ocean City, MD. After stopping here on our way North we benefit again of the easy inlet, probably the only good harbor on the Atlantic side of the Delmarva peninsula.

Ocean City boardwalk in winter
Ocean City boardwalk in winter

This place in winter felt even more like a bubble. You can look out the window and see the deserted beach of Assateague Island, or you can try another window and see waterfront properties with private docks sitting still in the brightest november day, empty and quiet, a lot of square feet of living space heated and cooled for none’s use. Ocean City MD is the outpost of humanity, the front that tries to resist the big emptiness flowing in from the ocean, the ruins of an idea that everybody knew was wrong but none could do anything to stop, an endless succession of buildings, streets and corners that are struggling to keep up with the passing of time, deserted by the general lack of interest. They keep silent trying to withstand another winter, in need of funding, maintenance, and love above all, only visited by scavengers who benefit from the lack of summer crowd.

Scavengers like us, who found a nice crack in this fabric and we wedged in, with fenders and dock lines and anchor and all. From three days offshore where Mother Nature gave us no discounts, to a temporary protected nest. In these ruins we plugged back in the social discourse to find out things don’t always change for the best and so we diverted our attention from that to fulfill our cruising needs, electrical power, showers and a chance to serendipitously acquire another object to expand our unassorted collection: a stowaway Kite.

Once defrosted in the waterfront comforts we sailed back to the anchorage. It had been a very, very long time since last time we dropped the hook. Since Cuttyhunk in September, if I recall, roughly two months earlier. It always feels a lot different when we are at anchor. It’s like the zero point, everything from there is just adding stuff. Adding shore power, adding freshwater, adding internet, social interactions, malls, driving, noise, smell, shame and judgmental looks.

At anchor we focus on the basics cooking food and eating, house keeping, reading, writing, sleeping long hours, watching Fellini’s movies thinking that Italy in the 60s was the most advanced peak humankind has ever reached (the romantic idea soon demolished by remembering the undisputed hegemony of DC party during those years), eating more, periodically changing the orientation of the solar panel to ensure that the maximum output is kept.

At our peculiar age, a precise step in the western society where on average we are supposed to increase our footprint acquiring a house, a car, hopefully a second one, that rice cooker, maybe a drill press for the garage, we are contained in these tight fiberglass walls that resist the natural expansion of humankind, tossing back everything that does not fall into a place, with objects constantly mixed and reshuffled by a washing machine-like motion that put moisture in the mix, leaving us, members of the advanced western society, crawling in tight corners trying to ignore the growing chaos, with our focus absorbed by primary technological needs. Eventually we reach the point where we can’t retreat any more and we have to surrender, re-organize the space through simple actions that take the entire day.

These walls resisting the colonialist expansion teach us an important lesson. Our living space is growing smaller and smaller. It takes some time at anchor to fight back and put things into place, to cut back, discard, stop acquiring. It can only take so much expansion before the growth become a double edged weapon. There is one thing I can say for sure: living on a boat has its limitations. Planet Earth is a similar type of vessel floating in an inhospitable space, and it can only take so much growth.