So here’s a story…
A couple of people go to sea for a couple of decades and discover a world dominated by the infernal combustion of one single industry. From construction to motivation, the entire marine industry is designed to consume massive amounts of products mined from a single source: petroleum. Everything. I’m talking epoxy, varnish, paint, foam for the settee cushions, gas for the outboards and the gensets, and ultimately millions upon millions of gallons of fuel to shift millions of vessels over the world’s ocean and all the waterways of every country around the globe.
And that shit’s finite, as is our breathable atmosphere.
What if those two aforementioned people wandering the sea (yeah us, James and Dena) discovered along the way that it didn’t have to be all that? Maybe we could curb that usage for ourselves and show people that there is a way to discover an entire planet without using a single drop of fuel.
Oh, sorry, that’s already been done thousands of times throughout history!
But what hasn’t been done, as far as I (James) can tell, is two people and a very cool gato circumnavigating the Earth in a 29.7 foot/9.05 meter electric sailboat.
We’re going to give it a shot!
So there we were in Key West, right about my birthday, dedicating ourselves to getting rid of the diesel motor and all its related toxicity. We decided to try a local media blitz by putting it all up for sale in every market we sailed to until we sold it. By the time we made landfall back in Marathon and changed the location on all the ads, we’d had a couple bites that got us excited. The next few weeks, we rolled though a disappointing gauntlet of flakes like the ones that have had us running from so many ports in the past. We were really dedicated and thoroughly invested in never buying another drop of marine diesel fuel. We’d even put the orders in for the big ticket items we’d need, but we couldn’t actually move forward on the application until we got rid of that evil engine.
While we continued to get bites and disappointments from prospective buyers, we built the smallest 1.8kw wind and solar farm we’ve ever seen and planned a way to take the engine apart piece by piece and deposit the detritus in every recycling bin from Vaca Key to Key Largo. Then the unexpected happened: we actually sold that 40 year old nightmare for the same amount we paid for our really cool dinghy.
Don’t get me wrong, we were totally taken by the local mooring-mafia but we were on the verge of giving that shit away to a dumpster so…yay.
Dena and I, of course, had to do all the fucking nasty work to disconnect that piece of shit from our bilge (I even had to winch that monster out of the boat and over the side) but in the end we totally aborted that mess and that’s no easy task in Florida, let me tell you.
When it was gone, we jettisoned the diesel fuel tank and had a whole set of messes to clean.
But the soon-to-be propulsion bay took the cake.
Making so much weight disappear gave us a startling sight from the dinghy. The boat was angled up at the stern! I mean, enough that the fried eggs ran down the cast iron toward the bow. We’d added wind and solar aft, but it gave us something to think about.
It was hot and sticky already, and promising to get worse through May. There was just something so satisfying about having all those LiFePO4 cells aboard, though! The system was getting real.
All this truly excellent gear sat for a sphincter-loosening amount of time at the marina’s receiving area, and eventually we decided it was better to live with it on our settees than leave it up there in public. That meant schlepping it to Tursiops, loading it into Tursiops, rowing Tursiops to Cetacea, heaving it up onto deck, and then getting it below. The weight was significant to us, but it didn’t fix the stern-up trim problem. Not even a little!
Back to the mess, we had hoped the oil catching basin would just lift out, but it was fiberglassed in. We cut an access port and began excavating the gifts from previous owners.
We worked like we thought we could and would, taking turns with the cold water and fans, and what we got was a near perfect propulsion bay.
Every step of the way we were unloading hundreds of pounds of obsolete Yanmar gear back into the boating community of Boot Key via the local magical dumpster. Just put something on the flat part on the back and it magically disappears. It’s absolutely the best thing about this place. Nothing goes to waste. A couple weeks into the project, we watched a pretty little sailboat die right in front of us after being flooded by a storm. I’d bet that everything on that boat that can be absorbed back into Boot Key Harbor will be or already has been.
We installed an electric motor to our drive shaft after…Motherfucker!
By the way, this entire project took place on a mooring, without a generator. We used 12v battery powered tools for everything we didn’t use hand tools for, and we rotated those batteries on the chargers as assiduously as we do anything.
We were both designing the space as we went. I mean, Dena designed the entire propulsion system on paper weeks ago and built the entire budget over the last year of cruising but the actual application part was an engineering marvel.
At first, we’d planned on putting the propulsion (LiFePo4) battery bank forward of the propulsion bay in the old diesel tank compartment. There was plenty of room for the bank and all of its freaked out electrical elements in there and we kind of thought we would have to open it that much which made it good if we couldn’t get the diesel smell out. But not only did we get the smell completely out of the boat we also did some new measurements with the motor in place and discovered the entire LiFePo4 bank would fit in with the motor…and I mean, like a glove!
I (James) have always admired from a great distance the philosophy of “do it once right”. It’s great to have goals…it really is, but I also like to go sailing on my boat and really the 20ft rule works for me.
Anyway, we absolutely had to get this one right and we did!!! Once!
We fiberglassed and bolted the solid oak stringers into place, we lined everything up to flow with the existing lines, we built and ran every single cable and wire from the charging sources to the battery terminals, we plugged everything in and and I’ll be fucked by a jesuit, it all worked!
I mean, almost. After figuring out that the battery system’s BMS had to be jump-started by some kind of power. The only kind we had was run through controllers that strictly require battery connection FIRST, so we raw-wired the solar to the thing and bing! It’s alive! All of it! It took both of us switching between Propulsion Bay and sitting in front of the fans all that last day of Memorial Day weekend to align it right but we did and made a proof-of-concept run against the mooring ball pennant.
…and then we took her for a spin!
We’re starting on a new type of voyage, where we’re going to be held to our ethics more closely than ever before. Sail when ever possible, check. Plan ahead to avoid contrary currents and winds, check. Be ready to stay in an anchorage a little longer than planned just in case, check.
Lots of people talk about range anxiety as the reason they can’t go electric on their boats. We’re setting off to demonstrate that, just like we’ve always said about moving aboard, it’s not about bringing your big-ass life down to the water, it’s about fitting into the boat that fits you. Now, the boat has no explosion-based propulsion that rattles fasteners loose and freaks out us and the cat, so fitting into the boat also means patience and planning.
Doesn’t that sound like the sailor’s story to you?