The biggest transformation of boatbuilding in our lifetime is under way, with the drive to eliminate carbon emissions and use composites that can be recycled into a new boat. Rupert Holmes visits those yards spearheading the change

Imagine a future where you could buy a standard production yacht which is built not from virgin fibres, toxic resin, and fitted with teak or plastic decks, nor propelled by a noisy engine fuelled by noxious heavy oil, but instead one crafted from natural products, which runs silently, emission-free and with very little carbon footprint. And where, at the end of the yacht’s life, you could trade it back in with the builders so they could separate the fibres from the resin and recycle it into a new boat.

That future is here and now in 2023. Thanks to years of research and development from some of the largest yards, your yacht of tomorrow is already available today – you maybe just didn’t realise it.

Whether crossing the Atlantic, or enjoying a sunny afternoon in local waters, the sense that sailing is an activity that takes us closer to nature is a strong one. Yet the vessels that provide this experience are the product of a sizeable polluting industry. Fortunately that situation is now changing quickly and two of the world’s largest boatbuilders are already making big steps towards producing more sustainable yachts.

At the same time, some of these changes will make yachts cleaner and quieter, with the potential for longer periods of autonomy when cruising long distances. A step-change was already in evidence at last year’s International Multihull Show, where a number of new catamarans sported solar arrays with outputs of several kilowatts – enough to feed almost all the hotel loads of these power-hungry vessels (enough to run a modest house in fact), with the exception of air conditioning and hot water.

However, this is just a first – and easily achieved – step in a rapidly evolving transformation. During that edition of the show Fountaine-Pajot announced its Odysséa24 strategic plan, which the firm has deployed for all its brands to become carbon neutral by 2030.

The first stage was informed by an independent study that shows the overwhelming majority – 80% – of the yard’s carbon emissions stem not from manufacturing processes, but from the use of its yachts during the first 20 years of their life.

Sun Fast 30s and Mini 650s in production at Groupe Beneteau’s Cheviré facility.

Just a few months later Groupe Beneteau announced its own plan to move to building its entire range from new more sustainable materials by 2030. This includes resins that can be recycled into a new yacht, achieving the holy grail of a circular economy. Electric propulsion – with range extending generators where appropriate – will also increasingly be offered as an option.

These are grand plans and the marine industry has a long history of grandiose ideas that are quickly sidelined or evolve only painstakingly slowly.

However, despite their huge sizes (annual turnover of €1.5 billion for Groupe Beneteau and €230 million for Fountaine-Pajot) these are still family-owned companies with a passion for change that comes right from the top and planning horizons that are far longer than those of some publicly listed or private equity-owned firms.

From talk to action

At the International Multihull Show, Claire Fountaine, president of the Fountaine Pajot and Dufour group, told us it was time for action: “In order for future generations to sail while preserving the planet, we have the ambition of becoming the leader of the ecological transition in our industry. This is the aim of our Odysséa24 plan.”

Scroll forward 12 months and we’re already seeing the fruits of this mission leaving the La Rochelle yard – more on that later. Equally, Groupe Beneteau already has yachts in series production using a modified version of Arkema’s Elium thermoplastic resin that can be recovered at the end of a yacht’s life and used to build another vessel.

Its Cheviré factory, opposite one of Airbus’s Nantes facilities and a stone’s throw from the river Loire, has an illustrious history. It was originally Jeanneau’s Advanced Technologies division, where the top three finishers in the 1990 Route du Rhum, including Florence Arthaud’s Pierre 1er and Philippe Poupon’s Fleury Michon, were built. More recently, the new Figaro 3 fleet was produced here.

Beneteau Oceanis 30

Today, Beneteau describes it as a laboratory for developing sustainable boatbuilding solutions. But in reality it’s more than that – a production boatbuilding plant capable of churning out 50-plus boats a year, while simultaneously running several side projects.

When I visited in May, three Mini 650s built using 6% flax fibre were in production. They’d also just popped the first Elium-built Sun Fast 30 out of the mould and were preparing to infuse the second. This boat is the outcome of a design competition organised by RORC, the UNCL in France and Storm Trysail Club in the USA. It was won by a collaboration between naval architects VPLP and advanced composites specialist Multiplast. So how did Jeanneau end up building the boat?

“We already had a partnership with Multiplast, who built the foils for the Figaro 3,” says Groupe Beneteau sailboat product director Damien Jacob. “They usually only do one-off projects, but we had an existing relationship that fitted this boat perfectly.”

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However, the original concept for the boat envisaged using conventional resins, so VPLP had to revisit the structural engineering to integrate Elium into the design. A key advantage of this material for boatbuilding is that it has very similar mechanical properties to conventional polyester resins. Nevertheless, it was important to validate the figures – a process that’s central to Beneteau’s vision for the changes it plans to implement across the board over the next few years. Instead of the risk of a sudden wholesale change, the yard is taking many small steps and learning from each one.

The building of one of the two Beneteau First 44 prototypes – a boat that also has twin electric motors, plus a diesel range extender generator – last year marked the first stage of the Elium project. The idea was it would enable a better understanding of the material, right down to the details of how to drill it efficiently, glue it and so on, to enable it to be integrated seamlessly into a production line.

The exquisite Flax 27 daysailer from Greenboats showcases what can be done with sustainable materials

Recyclable production yacht

Beneteau has a long-standing group of production experts with huge experience working with different materials, laminating techniques and problem solving. “These are really talented people who built the First 44e, and are already able to teach others how to use Elium,” says Groupe Beneteau research and innovation director Erwan Faoucher, who is also president of APER, the national boat dismantling scheme in France.

Unlike conventional resins, whether epoxy or polyester, Elium is a three-part resin system in which all the elements must be combined in precise quantities. Developed by Arkema, a multinational manufacturer of specialty materials headquartered near Paris, it’s the world’s first liquid thermoplastic resin that will cure at room temperature.

These properties make it feasible for use in boatbuilding, yet, as it’s a thermoplastic, at the end of a boat’s life it can be melted and recovered for use in a new boat, with the alcohol content providing much of the fuel needed to power the process. That’s hugely different to conventional polyester and epoxy resins, which are a thermoset type in which cross-bonding of the polymers makes it impossible to melt and recover for reuse.

Groupe Beneteau has an exclusive five year license on a formulation developed in a three-year collaboration with Arkema to optimise a version of the resin for production boatbuilding.

The three elements are automatically mixed by machine, ready for infusion, making it relatively simple to integrate into the production line. Equally, cure times are comparable to conventional polyester resins, so production schedules don’t need major adaptation.

A Flax 27 in build

These factors, along with its similar mechanical properties, make its use a relatively easy transition from polyester. However there is a 15% cost penalty on the price of a new boat, one that is expected to reduce to 10% as volumes increase (we understand Groupe Beneteau want to make these materials standard rather than a costly option). Also, the optimum method of how to separate the resin from the fibre at end of life, be it through using heat or solvents, is still being researched.

In addition to being a circular economy material – one that can be recovered when a boat is scrapped and then used to build another yacht – the Elium used by Beneteau already includes 18% recycled methacrylate – a core ingredient – and therefore has a carbon footprint around 15% lower than conventional polyester resins. Looking ahead, once fully recycled Elium can be used, carbon emissions are expected to be two or three times lower than polyester, a figure Faoucher says “will be very hard for any other material to beat.” It’s worth noting that epoxies tend to have a carbon footprint two or three times larger than that of conventional polyester resin.

Nevertheless, Beneteau is not betting its future solely on Elium. The small fibreglass parts such as locker lids, bathing platforms and so on for its nine brands are made in a single facility that produces a colossal 30,000 items a year. These now all include some flax fibres and are currently made using polyester resin with around 15% bio resin content.

This figure represents the amount of alcohol in conventional polyester resin and was therefore a fairly easy substitution as a first step. The next stage is to replace other components to reach 34% bio content. Faoucher says the maximum figure technically achievable is 40% as the styrene that makes up a large proportion of polyester resin can’t be replaced with bio sourced materials.

Flax fibres used by Greenboat

He also points out that determining the optimal amount of flax fibre to use is not as simple as it might appear, hence the 6% flax content in the Mini 650s. The problem, he says, is that natural fibres absorb more resin than artificial ones, which results in a heavier boat that may consume more CO2 for propulsion and so on over its lifespan.

Recyclable Dufour

Following Fountaine Pajot’s extensive development of electric and hydrogen power, the Dufour side of the group is turning to materials development. The project, dubbed ‘Licorne’ (unicorn) is due to be unveiled later this year. The plan is to use recycled materials to build a Dufour 41 prototype, fast-track sail it for around three years, before disassembling it to build another yacht and so prove its circular concept.

Deputy CEO Romain Motteau is enthused by the project, and says the unique element is the Arkema resin they want to use is already formed of recycled material. His vision is to build a fleet of boats which are rented from Dufour and, at the end of their lifetime, come back to be recycled into new boats, rather than the current model of building hundreds of yachts a year and selling them to new owners: ‘that is the future’.

Ongoing R&D

Groupe Beneteau and FP/Dufour are not the only outfits seeking to create sustainable boat production and there are many smaller scale operators who have quietly been churning out low carbon or recyclable yachts in timber epoxy or aluminium for many years – but these solutions can’t yet be scaled up to industrial proportions.

Nevertheless one notable young company is focussed on developing new boatbuilding methods that can be scaled – Germany’s Greenboats. Founders Friedrich Deimann and Paul Schirmer gained much attention with the exquisite Flax 27 daysailer, which is a fantastic showcase of what can be achieved with natural fibres and bio-sourced resins.

Greenboats’ MB9 is a 30ft offshore racer made of flax fibres and bio resins

This was not initially intended as a series production vessel, but from the outset the founders’ vision extended much further. The company has put significant energy into developing sustainable boatbuilding materials, including consulting for more established yards, and has firmly been at the forefront of this revolution.

Examples include work with 11th Hour Racing to produce parts such as hatches for its IMOCA 60 Malama that have the same strength, structural characteristics and weight as the previous carbon hatches that were more or less a standard IMOCA item.

It has taken more than a decade, plus a lot of research and experimentation, for Greenboats to reach this level of expertise.

“Most production with flax fibres today is quite crude and they don’t play to the magic of the composite,” Deimann explains.

With detailed structural engineering, even for small parts, plus optimal fibre orientation and location, it’s possible to achieve the same weight, and in some cases less, than using conventional materials. Their latest project, for instance, a 30ft short-handed racer/cruiser built for Matthias Bröker, a naval architect at Judel/Vrolijk who worked on the Dehler 30, will be lighter than the Dehler.

What happens at the end of life for the boats they build? “There are two possible approaches,” says Deimann. “You can use low-impact, low carbon biological based materials like flax and bio resins, or recyclable resin systems.” Greenboats has tried both and at the moment believes the former is currently the best option, especially as the infrastructure that would be needed for recycling is a long way off.

Instead they have successfully trialled making granules from a laminate made using natural materials. These were then used to help power the furnace of a steel making plant in a way that’s not possible with conventional materials.

FP’s Aura 51 uses the Smart Electric concept to vastly reduce fossil fuel energy consumption and increase autonomy

The power struggle

Given Fountaine Pajot’s realisation that the overwhelming bulk of carbon emissions occur not in manufacture, but when the boat is in use (especially under engine power), the materials used for building boats are by no means the only changes the industry needs to make.

Electric propulsion has been established as the default for new daysailer designs for most of the last decade and is now rapidly making inroads in the market for larger craft. Many of these will initially also be fitted with ultra-efficient diesel range extender generators, though the hope among many is that green hydrogen will become available sufficiently widely to replace the generator with a hydrogen fuel cell in the not too distant future.

Fountaine Pajot has already launched a prototype version of its Samana 59 that’s entirely powered by non-fossil fuels, including a 6kW solar array and a powerful 70kW REXH2 hydrogen powered fuel cell. This boat was developed in conjunction with EODev, an industrial extension of the Energy Observer project – a 90ft racing catamaran that enjoyed an illustrious career before being converted to run on hydrogen power and has since completed 50,000 hours of use.

Torqeedo and WhisperPower developed an ultra-efficient range extender generator to maximise the power from a given amount of diesel

In France enthusiasm for hydrogen power is growing rapidly, including a massive 34 hectare hydrogen farm in development at St Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire, rapidly growing numbers of hydrogen fuelling stations for public transport (the two largest towns in the Vendée – La Roche sur Yon and Les Sables d’Olonne – for instance both have them) and double the number for private cars as the UK.

Nevertheless, Fountaine-Pajot remains cautious about the realities of how quickly this technology can be rolled out in the marine industry. It’s not about the intrinsic reliability of the system, as Phil Sharp, another hydrogen advocate who’s also based in La Rochelle, is seeking to demonstrate in the next Vendée Globe race. The problem for long-distance cruising yachts is one of availability within a sensible time frame: “European funding is needed to make it happen,” according to communications director Hélène de Fontainieu.

Instead, Fountaine Pajot’s immediate focus is on what it calls Smart Electric – electric propulsion backed up by a diesel generator, plus efficient regeneration from the electric motors while sailing, large solar arrays and wind power. An intelligent onboard energy management system is also a key element and ensures optimal use of power and charging.

“Many boats have two or three internal combustion motors,” deputy CEO and Smart Electric/hydrogen project manager Matthieu Fountaine told me. “In a well engineered system if they are replaced with electric propulsion motors, plus a diesel generator, we can reduce the fuel needed for propulsion by 15-20%.”

Fountaine Pajot’s Samana 59 is powered entirely by non-fossil fuels

Smart Electric is available for all FP brands, including Dufour monohulls. Several examples are already afloat and a further 50 are scheduled for build next year.

Early buyers have come from across the globe and are often people who see themselves as pioneers. Yet this concept has potential to become mainstream very quickly – last year hybrid and fully electric cars accounted for almost 50% of the UK market, so many boat buyers have already experienced electric propulsion.

Pioneering work by yards such as Arcona, Salona and Outremer, as well as cruisers such as YouTubers Dan Deckert and Kika Mevs (@SailingUma), who took their electric powered 50-year-old Pearson 36 to Svalbard and Iceland last summer, has also helped to showcase what’s possible and refine the new products that are needed.

The charter market is also important to Fountaine Pajot, so how well has the concept been received in the more hard-headed business world? Two large operators – Tradewinds and Dream Yacht Charter – have already embraced the Smart Electric concept, with the latter ordering 40 boats for delivery over the next two years.

Electric motor range

Using electric propulsion opens a door to a completely different way of thinking to the diesel engines we’re accustomed to using. However, a challenge for many boatbuilders is they have to convey very different messages for different types of boat. Many diesel powered yachts carry so much fuel that consumption is never a worry. However, the further you voyage the greater the chances that you’ll opt to throttle back to extend range.

It’s incredibly easy to underestimate the dramatic benefit this has on energy use. Wave making resistance increases exponentially above 1x the square root of the effective waterline length (in feet). Therefore it takes three times more energy to push a boat with a 36ft (10.9m) waterline at 8 knots than at 6 knots.

Further efficiencies can be gained by throttling back further. Most of the time only a small proportion of the potential power is being used, but more is on tap for manoeuvring and for punching head seas for short periods, such as leaving harbour or rounding choppy headlands.

Motorsailing with electric power is also very different to doing so with a diesel engine and is an absolute revelation. Unlike a diesel, electric motors can give just a small extra push – if this simultaneously helps increase apparent wind, the speed boost might be obtained using only 10% of the motor’s output, giving a silent motor sailing range hugely greater than a quick scan of system specifications might suggest.

Drop in the ocean?

Yet this is all a far cry from what visitors to the massive space devoted to motoryachts at this year’s Düsseldorf boat show will have seen. Among the many craft on display, a large number of fast, yet heavy, boats powered by colossal engines – including multiple units of recently developed 10-cylinder 350hp and 450hp outboard motors – showed not even the slightest nod towards addressing the impending climate crisis or over use of plastics.

Groupe Beneteau – larger than the next half dozen yards combined – clearly believes this old approach isn’t viable in the long term. It has firmly staked its future in a sustainable direction, to the point of selling its three-decade-old €300 million mobile home business to help fund the transition towards sustainable boatbuilding. Many others are surely set to follow them and Fountaine Pajot, along with the many smaller yards that did much of the early pioneering work in moving towards more sustainable practices.

Deimann cautions there is still a long way to go and is concerned the industry as a whole is still generally operating on an old linear economy model, not a circular one. That’s a change that requires a whole new way of thinking, but a change that – as of now – is at least under way.

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