The future is electric, says cruising guru Jimmy Cornell. He’s building an electric catamaran for a circumnavigation without fossil fuels
In 2010 I sold my [Ovni 43] Aventura III and, as I was 70, I felt the time had come to call it quits. That didn’t last long though and, by 2013, with accelerating climate change increasingly making the news for those who were prepared to listen, I decided to get another boat, Aventura IV and attempt to transit the North West Passage.
Described by scientists as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ of global climate, whatever happens there eventually spreads to the rest of the world. I did manage to transit this once impenetrable waterway, now opening up due to the consequences of climate change. I also saw the effects of global warming on the local population.
With that mission accomplished, in 2017 I sold Aventura IV and that was it… But not for long, as three years later, with climate change surpassing the worst predictions, I decided to put retirement on hold for a bit longer and try something completely different. Such as sailing around the world on a fully electric boat along the route of the first circumnavigation 500 years previously.
Once again, the main reason for this decision was my profound concern for the state of the environment and especially that of the oceans. During my first world voyage between 1975 and 1981 I was fortunate to visit many places whose nature was still in the pristine state it had been since they were settled.
I’ve returned to many of those places in the intervening years and almost everywhere, from Tuvalu to Alaska, have been shocked to witness the destructive processes caused by the change in climatic conditions.
My concern for the state of the oceans has been strongly influenced by my own observations during 45 years of roaming the oceans of the world, as well as being regularly reconfirmed by my research into global weather conditions when updating my various books.
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For anyone planning a longer voyage now, the worst changes that have occurred are the increase in the frequency of extra-seasonal cyclones, the tropical storm seasons themselves being less clearly defined, and areas of the world being affected by such storms where they’d never occurred before.
In the South Pacific the cyclone season now lasts longer than in the past, in the Caribbean Sea a hurricane occurred in late November, and in the Coral Sea extra-seasonal cyclones have been recorded as late as June, July and even September. In the north-west Pacific both the frequency and the force of typhoons are on the increase, with some super-typhoons having gusts of 200 knots.
In recent years, typhoons have been recorded in that area in every month of the year, making attempts to define a safe season no longer reliable. The 500th anniversary of the first round-the-world voyage seemed the perfect opportunity to sail that same route in tune with current concerns to go green wherever possible. Here was a unique opportunity to do it in an electric boat with a zero carbon footprint.
As I started my search for a suitable vessel, I found that there were several projects involved in the development of electric boats. In all cases they were based either on a hybrid solution (diesel engine or generator) or had at least a genset as a backup.
As to a boat capable of undertaking a longer voyage, even those described as an electric boat appeared to have had some kind of a backup. What follows is how I decided to conceive a sailing boat based exclusively on renewable sources of energy and with no fossil fuel for propulsion or electricity generation.
Choice of boat
The main reason for my choice of a catamaran is the fact that I want to be able to do the entire voyage under sail (and not by way of a circumnavigation in the Southern Ocean where wind is guaranteed) and in this case the regeneration of energy is essential.
There are four essential factors in an electric sailing boat, and they are all dictated by the need to be able to generate electricity not just by passive means (solar panels, wind and hydrogenerator) but also active sources: the movement of the boat under sail:
- A potentially fast boat under sail. This means a light displacement boat, whether monohull or multihull.
- A boat that has sufficient surface available to display solar panels, hence my choice of an Outremer performance cruising catamaran.
- A crew with the right attitude and mindset: capable and prepared to sail whenever there is wind and be patient to wait when there isn’
- Following from that – and this is perhaps the most important factor – to accept that we now live in a world and a time when we must be ready to change our ways, from what we eat, how we live, how we travel; and that certainly includes how we sail.
Finnish company Oceanvolt has been working on electricity regeneration for the last 20 years and has produced an ingenious system based on its ServoProp variable pitch propeller. The ServoProp’s unique feature is the possibility to turn the propeller blades more than 180°. The software-controlled variable pitch saildrive adjusts the pitch of the propeller blades automatically so the power generation and power output are optimal.
Combined with uniquely designed blades this delivers optimal efficiency in forward, reverse and hydrogeneration. With the blades set to the neutral sailing position, the propeller creates extremely low drag similar to the drag of a feathering propeller. The ServoProp is capable of generating an estimated 1 kW at 6 to 8 knots. My catamaran EL.CA.NO. will also have a large amount of solar panels (1,500W).
With this potential level of electricity generation there is no need for a separate generator. Although the boatyard insists that I have a backup diesel generator, I have absolutely refused – not even a sealed unit to be used in a serious emergency as I am determined to prove that cruising with a zero carbon footprint is achievable, as is the possibility of a totally self-sufficient cruising boat. I shall even attempt to avoid using shore power at the stopovers en route.
I didn’t carry a generator on any of my previous boats and relied on the main engine, supplemented later by solar panels, wind and hydrogenerator; I tested such a system on my return from the North West Passage when the engine failed shortly after leaving Greenland.
We managed to sail some 2,500 miles to the UK relying primarily on a Sail-Gen hydrogenerator that covered all our requirements: autopilot, instruments, communications, electric winches and toilets, and arrived at Falmouth Marina with fully charged batteries.
As on my previous three boats B&G will supply all onboard electronics, including its well-tested Zeus system. Besides the standard offshore cruising configuration, B&G has agreed to my suggestion to use EL.CA.NO. as the test bed for possible solutions in such common emergencies as lightning strike, autopilot failure or power blackout.
These were the main concerns expressed by cruising sailors who took part in a recent survey among short-handed crews. We’ll be looking into protecting all electronics during an electric storm by making it possible to isolate the entire network, or producing a basic temporary navigation system powered by a separate battery bank to use in an emergency or if the main system has to be turned off.
The basic sail plan and rig of EL.CA.NO. are based on the Outremer 45, with some performance features borrowed from the Outremer 4X. Sailing such a complex route crossing several ocean regions from temperate to tropical, high to low latitudes, I have put much thought into the sail wardrobe. Besides the standard mainsail and a self-tacking Solent jib, I’ll have a code 0 and my favourite Parasailor spinnaker.
As we ended up with many modifications to those two models besides the electric propulsion system, this prototype will be marketed as a new model, the Outremer 4E. A later hybrid version, Outremer 4H, will incorporate a diesel generator.
In the short term I expect the latter may prove to be the more attractive version, so I have been also doing some research into the feasibility of making diesel gensets greener than they are at the moment.
This led me to Krone, a major industrial filter manufacturer in Bremen, Germany, which has perfected an exhaust filtering system for one of the German Customs’ patrol vessels. Krone’s chief engineer assured me that a more compact system based on a catalytic converter could be adapted to diesel generators used on pleasure craft.
However, this only solves half the environmental pollution caused by diesel fuel by neutralising the noxious particles, with carbon dioxide still being released into the water or atmosphere.
While this could be a start, soon it may not be enough as it won’t be long before fossil fuel powered vessels will be barred from marinas, marine parks, nature reserves, some rivers and lakes. Outremer is already preparing for this eventuality.
As to the historic dimension of my project, its aim is not only to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first round-the-world voyage but also to put right a persistent wrong. The first circumnavigation continues to be attributed to the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan.
In fact, the Basque sailor Juan Sebastian Elcano should be credited with this achievement, as he sailed with Magellan from the start in 1519, took over the leadership of the expedition when Magellan was killed in the Philippines, and completed the voyage in 1522. Hence my Elcano Challenge and its aim to complete a circumnavigation by a fully electric boat called Elcano but spelt EL.CA.NO – ELectricity. CArbon. NO.
This is an ambitious undertaking, but I’m prepared to take on the challenge and do my best to complete such a long voyage to show that the concept is viable for a cruising boat, and will certainly become the norm in the long term. This is a challenge not only for me but also for Grand Large Yachting, whose Outremer team are fully behind this project.
There are three critical areas along the 30,000-mile route and tackling them in the right way and at the right time is a challenging task. The most difficult is the 350-mile long Magellan Strait, where contrary westerly winds boosted by the narrow high-flanked gorge will put Outremer’s narrow hulls and daggerboards configuration to a tough test of her windward going capabilities.
Potentially even more dangerous are the violent unpredictable williwaws, katabatic winds that roll off the high-sided cliffs at 40 or more knots and drive the boat relentlessly onto the opposite lee shore. We survived such dire straits on Aventura III in that area and barely managed to keep off the beach with engine screaming at full power.
With 56kW of combined battery capacity, EL.CA.NO. will be able to motor for at least two hours at full power, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we won’t be in such a situation. However, to be prepared for just such an eventuality, we’ll have two ready-to-be-deployed 25kg anchors (Rocna and Vulcan) with 25m of chain and 100m of line each to be thrown overboard and hopefully arrest any deathly drift.
Just as challenging will be dodging the simultaneous cyclone seasons on the two sides of the equator as we cross from the South to the North Pacific on the leg between Puka Puka, in the Tuamotus, to Guam.
With cyclones never crossing the equator or rarely coming close it, should we be threatened by such a cyclone or typhoon, we’ll do just that: keep as close to the Line and take whatever avoiding action that may be necessary.
Even 500 years since Magellan lost his life in the Philippines, the safety situation in that part of the world is still uncertain, especially around Mindanao in the southern part of the archipelago. So while I refused to have a backup diesel generator, I was less inclined to turn down the kind offer of the Spanish Navy to ask their naval contacts in the Philippines or Brunei to provide us with an escort vessel to see us through that ill-famed area.
As an official event of the quincentenary celebrations, the Elcano Project will thus be granted VIP treatment when it really matters. Much better than crossed fingers!
Crossing some rarely travelled ocean areas, I’ll be taking part in various scientific research projects. As I did from the North West Passage, I’ll be launching weather buoys and sending regular data to the World Meteorological Organisation.
Meanwhile an Ocean Pack device plumbed into the seawater inlet will be testing samples of water for temperature, acidity, presence of plastic particles, and then transmitting them via the boat’s satellite system to Geomar, an ocean research institute based in Kiel, Germany.
For many years I’ve been ending my long-distance cruising seminars telling the audience that the most beautiful moments in life are still to come. I am the living proof of that. EL.CA.NO. here we come. The future is indeed electric!
First published in the April 2020 edition of Yachting World.