Should people convert yachts to electric motors?

In this generally good and fact filled interview (“Electric Engines on Sailboats: A Complete Guide! | Sailing Uma Interview“) there is the statement “If you have a working diesel, keep it” (at 40:30).

Of all the conversions of Yachts to electric motors, Kika and Dan of Sailing Uma, are possibly the most inspiring, they have more experience than pretty much everyone. They have built multiple versions, done some amazing DIY to get things working in ways they were not designed for and used them over years of cruising (20,000 miles I think they said). Their whole channel is full of brilliant and inspiring stories that spring from their characters which are lovely, positive, empathetic and so full of energy. Their videos around tourism and the environment in Haiti, of accessible sailing catamarans, of their responses to huge unexpected boat problems such as the keel nearly falling off the boat in the early days are great. We also find the way they have reworked the interior of Uma over the years really encouraging, it has helped us be much more adventurous with out own layout decisions.

BUT …

I totally disagree with this statement “If you have a working diesel, keep it”.

I fully accept several of their arguments

  • the key restriction of electric motor installations is the range
  • many people are wedded to the idea that their diesel engine is a significant safety feature (I think they are wrong to do so but they do think that)
  • that an electric motor would force significant changes on many people who cruise to a timetable

Yet, I think they have missed the key reason that nearly everyone with a yacht should be encouraged to switch to an electric motor. We have to stop using fossil fuels and do so fast. So the UN says:

Increased commitments can take many forms but overall they must serve to shift countries and economies onto a path of decarbonization, setting targets for net zero carbon, and timelines of how to reach that target, most typically through a rapid acceleration of energy sourced from renewables and a rapid deceleration of fossil fuel dependency.

I think by now most people reading this blog are aware of the problems with fossil fuels, if not here are a couple of introductions.

So I’m saying switch away from Diesel Engines because we need to stop burning fossil fuels and I recognise that will have an impact on how you can use your yacht. I’m sorry about that but it is tough. We have to change and the way of cruising with a powerful, pretty reliable (especially if we ignore the very common fuel problems) diesel engine has to come to an end as a rather short time period in the history of cruising yachts.

My rule of thumb is to replace your diesel engine with an electric motor if any of these apply to you:

  • Your diesel engine does not work
  • Your fuel system needs money spending on to solve problems with diesel bug or other sludge or water
  • Your diesel engine needs signifiant work doing on any aspect
  • Your diesel engine needs taking out to do work on your stuffing box, cutlass bearing etc
  • You use a lot of diesel

If after this you have a working diesel engine by all means sell it to someone who will use it less than you.

The impact of switching from a diesel engine in your boat to an electric motor is far more significant than just the reduction in fossil fuels. It has massive symbolic value to others. It causes a big, positive, shift in our own expectations and our commitment to change in every part of our lives. As such it is a step everyone should be considering.

Cabin Refurbishment: Part 4 Layout

Continuing from Cabin Refurbishment: Part 3 Interior Theme and Style

Plans so far (layout and technical)

We really love the overall layout of Vida with the small, safe, protected centre cockpit that allows for an aft cabin accessible from the main cabin and two heads compartments.

However, there are a number of ways we want to tweak the layout, for long term live-aboard cruising. A lot of these tweaks come from the benefits of switching to zero fossil fuels, we gain useable space in a number of places. For example:

  • Our cockpit locker now has more that twice the volume (removed diesel fuel tank, paraffin heater and tank, 4 x 12volt battery, water heater, water pump, fridge compressor)
  • We have gained an aft lazarette that used to be mostly filled by the gas bottles.
  • The corridor to the aft cabin is now wider on both sides (electric motor is smaller and doesn’t need the same sound and fire protection; diesel fuel tank removed)
  • The heads compartments don’t have to leave space for and access to 3 seacocks each, we are having much smaller wash basins too (although we are adding small waste water tanks and the composting toilets are a bit larger).

The original layout was rather “optimised” to sell the idea that you could have 8 berths (2 aft cabin, 2 forecabin, double using the saloon U-settee and infill, starboard settee with pilot berth above) and have all 8 sit around the table for a meal.

However, there was never going to be enough space for 8 people’s belongings (especially if they wanted you to have some food for them). Sitting 8 around the table would mean constant climbing over each other for access.

Our plan is to optimise for us as a couple living aboard with the capacity to have two guests for extended periods. In harbour we would use the aft and forecabins for sleeping, each with en-suite heads. Neither of these cabins is suited to use at sea, there the most comfortable place to sleep is a single bunk, in the middle of the boat, with a good lee cloth to stop you falling out. So we are planning for a minimum of one person on watch and so will need 3 sea berths.

That would give us the potential to have a few extra guests, for shorter visits, when in harbour or for shorter passages in good weather.

So here are some of the ideas we have at present.

We have already shared our ideas to remodel the aft cabin to make better use of the space, improving the way into the aft heads, providing a comfortable seat and easier climbing onto the bed, plus better insulation and more practical storage. We have now realised we can grab a little more space from the engine compartment from what was used to avoid siphoning with the exhaust.

I recently wrote about our plans for extending the galley. We plan for a under counter front opening fridge (where the gas oven used to be), for a microwave combo oven above and back from the induction hob. The induction hob to be gimbled but with the option to swap it for the Instant Pot or coffee machine so they can be used gimbled instead. In harbour we will be able to bring out the spare induction hob for more adventurous cooking (we think that having two individual induction hobs is a much better option than a one double hob).

We are pretty sure we want to change the chart table area quite a lot. Part of the goal will be to make the corridor to the aft cabin a bit wider as well as providing good storage (possibly large stuff such as bikes, or a watermaker, or for extra solar panels when they are not in use, or …). If we can make it work, we would like to rotate the chart table itself so that instead of sitting on a folding seat facing outwards (which blocks the corridor) you sit facing forwards. That would give somewhere that you could sit at when on watch keeping an eye on the instruments without disturbing someone asleep on the saloon sea berth.

We have an idea to turn the corridor access to the aft cabin into a single quarter berth when on passage. So essentially a pipe cot/fold down bed that you get out whenever on passage. That would provide a really secure, comfy bed in a place with little motion and easy access to the chart-table. When there are just two of us that leaves the saloon for seating/dressing etc. If we have extra crew we then have 3 sea berths without needing to have the double decker option at the saloon settee. This is only attractive because you will no longer be sandwiched between a noisy/smelly diesel engine and a smelly diesel fuel tank.

We have been exploring different options for the forecabin after we have done all the practical work to improve anchoring. One option is to keep it mostly the same, but improve it for use as a guest double cabin. The key challenges there are the height to climb into bed when it is setup as a double and the way the doors work for the heads.

The second option is to more drastically strip it out so that it functions better as a store/workshop with the option for one or two guest single berths that fold away when not in use.

Our heads compartments will both be laid out very differently, in large part, due to the composting toilets being a little larger but needing no plumbing connections. We have glass washing bowls to sit on top of worktops, so we are going to be very trendy, because they were the cheapest option at B&Q πŸ˜‰ We want a very easy to clean, spacious feel rather than lots of little cabinets. As we have moved increasingly to plastic free bathroom products, you need far less space for stuff anyway.

In the forward heads we are determined to make the shower easy, comfortable and welcoming to use. We will also add an outside shower but we are British and living in Manchester so an outside shower is currently beyond our emotional imaginations capacity. A key to this will be to change the complicated multiway doors around the forward head in some way that will also replace the hopeless sliding door to the main cabin with something easier to use

We have already changed the saloon from having a big central table, the new table leg allows a table to be moved around so access is much easier. Eventually we will have a tabletop that opens out if needed. We can also use the same table and leg in the cockpit for al-fresco dining. We will make it so the U-shaped seating area can become a 2nd single sea berth.

We didn’t like the way the main settee backrest hinged up to make “bunk beds”. The lower bunk was very nice (but you couldn’t sit up in it) but it was very difficult to climb up into the upper berth. A side effect was that the settee was too deep for normal length legs πŸ™‚ So we will add a more comfortably positioned backrest that moves right out of the way.

We really don’t like the storage in the saloon area. Every cupboard door and opening is a different size and none of them line up (which is not what is shown in the construction drawings). Many of them are so deep that you have to empty them to reach things at the bottom. So one day this will be simplified making the space look larger while being more useful.

Phew! It sounds a lot. Fortunately we won’t be doing this all at once, nor are we in any rush. These jobs will be spread over years while we are still working and using the boat for weekends and holidays. While there will always be much less volume than a modern 38 foot yacht we are very happy that we will have plenty for our needs and all in a boat design that is proven, trusted and affordable.

Cabin Refurbishment: Part 2 Approaches

Continuing from Cabin Refurbishment: Part 1 the story so far and what is delaying us.

I’m going to generalise and say there are four main approaches to the interior of older yachts.

The Minimal: don’t change anything, don’t fix anything that isn’t a problem for you. Probably coupled with gradually reducing expectations of where you will go. This is where Vida had been for a number of years which included 2 years out of the water. Inside the layout and furnishings were essentially original with nearly all original equipment some of which didn’t work and some of which had become dangerous (eg gas installation, paraffin heater and especially it’s jerrycan). As is obvious from the speed we have taken stuff out this is clearly not something we are comfortable given our goal of preparing the boat for a live-aboard retirement.

The Restoration: There are lots of people who do this absolutely beautifully, spending hours and hours sanding and varnishing the interior woodwork, replacing like for like with beautiful care so you can’t see the joins. This is not us either, partly because we don’t really like that traditional look of so much dark wood, partly because we want to be sailing not sanding and varnishing, partly because we think things have moved on from what was a traditional yacht in the 1970’s.

The Functional: Do what is needed, very often on a low budget, so that you can get sailing. Often something by younger people who take on a project boat. Whilst Vida is definitely a “project” boat we are not yet ready to go off live-aboard cruising (which is what we see for a few years time in retirement) so we have time to do things to a more comfortable standard befitting our advanced years πŸ˜‰

The Radical: a complete refit including remodelling and modernising. Obviously we are doing this on the technical side (composting toilets, removing seacocks, fossil fuel free etc). Clearly this can be done to a wide variety of standards from exquisite to utilitarian. Our preferences are more to the pragmatic and functional end of the spectrum. We are not interested in a wow factor of beautiful joinery or a “luxury” presentation so much as everything working awesomely and being very low on maintenance.

Obviously, these are very simplistic generalisations and most people will combine the different options for different parts of the boat (a forecabin might get ignored for a long time unless it is where you sleep in which case it might be first priority.

We choose to put ourselves towards the more extreme end of “The Radical” approach for a number of reasons.

  • It makes the technical stuff easier and quicker if we are not trying to make restoration as easy as possible. We save ourselves a lot of effort if we can remove things to improve access without worrying about restoring them or keeping it functional while the work is happening (so for example it hasn’t been an issue for us to have 9 or more holes in the bottom for months and months)
  • by spending some money we can save a whole lot of time (eg by buying new sinks for a new worktop rather than trying to rescue the old ones), our present lives mean we are quite time poor at present.
  • We believe that expectations and products have changed a great deal in the last 40 years. Examples include
    • what we expect to cook and eat when sailing or living aboard. Making a cup of tea or instant coffee and adding water to dehydrated food is only expected by weight watching racers. We want real food and given that our diet is almost entirely meat free we want to be able to prepare meals from fresh ingredients wherever possible. Our budget and anchorage preferences means we want and expect to cook ourselves nearly all the time rather than eat at restaurants. This affects storage, food preparation areas and galley equipment.0
    • Navigation, communications and entertainment are a whole different world with significant impacts on every part of the interior (the Internet, mobile phones, batteries, electronic charts, LED’s, TV’s, video etc)
    • Our expectations of comfort (warmth, dryness, depth of mattress, materials, ventilation)
    • Where people expect to cruise to. Yes the world but also the North West Passage was impossible for a yacht and many places would not have occurred to ordinary people, they were for the amazing adventurers only. So now we can watch people going to Greenland or the Norwegian Arctic Circle and think we could do the same.

What we are still realising is that our approach means that when we think of refurbishing the interior we are actually looking at rather more radical re-workings of the space than we had expected or realised. That seems a good place to finish this post and leave you hanging on for part 3 πŸ™‚

Continued in Cabin Refurbishment: Part 3 Interior Theme and Style

Plans for anchoring

The need.

Once we start cruising our plan is to spend the vast majority of time at anchor when we are not sailing.

Partly this is to save money πŸ™‚ For example, the nearest marinas to us at Conwy currently cost about Β£35 a night or Β£215 a week. A visitors mooring is Β£18.50 per night. Paying those prices would soon add up to very large part of our budget.

However, more than just the money is the experience. We much prefer being at anchor in a quiet river or bay than being tied up in a marina (good examples we have visited before in Cornwall would include the River Yealm and the River Fal as well as bays such as Studland).

So a lot of what we are planning is to give us the maximum freedom to be at anchor as much as possible. By being fossil fuel free we won’t need to go to marinas or harbours for fuel or energy. By having a watermaker we won’t need to go there to fill up with water. By fitting a high quality 4G antenna (up high) we will improve the mobile signal to give good Internet access more of the time, without needing to go somewhere for WiFi. As public WiFi becomes more common we can also fit a long range antenna for that too.

So for shopping, getting rid of rubbish and leisure we don’t need to be in a marina or harbour, we can use the dinghy. Probably the main use of marinas will be when we want to leave the boat unattended for family visits or whatever.

Knowing that we want to be anchored a lot of the time is one thing. However, there are very different challenges for this depending on where you are in the world (and very different costs).

In the UK the key challenge with anchoring is that much of the coastline (particularly the South Coast) is very crowded with many rivers full of marinas or moorings. This reduces the availability of places left to anchor. So often you need to anchor in a more exposed anchorage where you might need to move depending on the weather (particularly wind direction) as there are few available places sheltered enough from all directions.

In other places (like the Bahamas) there are millions of places to anchor (although again you will need to move around due to wind or swell). Other places have fewer places to anchor and more marinas (eg some parts of the Mediterranean).

What we need, therefore, is a high reliability, easy to use anchoring setup that we can trust and which enables us to easily move between anchorages then anchoring becomes the default, obvious, no-brainer choice..

That means, as with many areas, we are making plans that are significantly different to where Vida is at the moment and different to many of the boats that you typically see when walking around a harbour or marina – there you often see yachts with anchors that are tiny and very rarely used.

The challenge

Our requirements are quite different to what was the norm when Vida was built in the 1976/77. Then anchors were normally lifted on deck and stored in an anchor locker. That wasn’t too difficult as the size was limited by the capabilities of a manual windlass.

Over the years expectations, fashion and technology have all changed. Electric windlasses are now common (allowing heavier anchors and longer chain without a very fit and strong crew). There have also been really significant improvements in anchor design during the last 40 years. As a result most boats store their anchor permanently in the bow roller, ready for use and to save lifting it around.

But our bow roller was not designed to store an anchor when at sea, despite that the old CQR Anchor was clearly often stored there (and as a result has damaged the bow roller). Now our anchor locker isn’t big enough for a modern anchor (as they typically don’t pivot and lie flat). Because the windlass is in the anchor locker it requires an extra roller to change the angle of the incoming chain so that it is right for the windlass.

Old CQR anchor in the locker. Note the extra roller in the middle which lines the chain up properly for the windlass.

In the next picture you can see the bow roller and how the chain has damaged the route into the locker.

We obviously get a lot of water into the anchor locker. Despite the little drain holes it collects a puddle of rainwater and if a wave comes on deck that big slot will allow a lot into the locker. Both these have presumably contributed to the rust attack on the windlass.

When we bought Vida the chain was in very poor condition and hence wasn’t able to neatly pile into the chain locker which is under the v-berth in the forecabin.

We were looking for ways to replace the roller in the bow fitting (not only bits chipped off by the anchor but also suffering from UV degradation), but it is difficult as there is no side access to the pin.

Ok so that is the challenge. What are we planning?

The Plan

This plan has evolved a few times πŸ™‚

We start with the anchor hardware. After reading lots of tests and opinion pieces we have chosen a SPADE Anchor. It is one of the “New Generation” anchor designs (about 20 years old). I don’t think I’ve seen it outside the top 5 in any test (in one test they broke the test equipment with a SPADE Anchor).

It does disassemble into two pieces which can be convenient. The shaft is actually 3D (a hollow triangular cross section) which means it is incredibly resistant to sideways forces (such as when the boat swings round to pull in the opposite direction due to a tide change).

The pointed tip is actually hollow and filled with lead so that it is very nose heavy which helps it dig in reliably.

By just about every table of anchor sizes I have gone up one size. So this is a 30kg anchor which means that, at least in theory, it should be adequate for a full storm, if not a hurricane. It won’t be our only anchor but we are following the advice that a big anchor in your locker does nothing so make it your normal anchor.

If I wasn’t going to have a SPADE anchor then I’d probably go for the quite similar and very new Mantus M2 (which unlike their earlier anchor does not have a roll bar).

To go with this anchor I have what should be top quality Italian chain from Lofrans. 80 metres of 10mm, again oversized. I’ll add some line to the end of that should we visit the pacific where there can be some very deep anchorages. This chain alone should be good for pretty bad conditions in up to around 15m or 50 feet depth of water.

This anchor and chain is going to be far too heavy for us to recover by hand (except we would find a way to use the main sheet winches or a block and tackle in an emergency). So we have an Electric Windlass to fit.

This was really what set the limit for the anchor and chain. This was the most powerful windlass that was sensible in price and which used 12 volt. So that stopped me getting the next size anchor.

Now we come to the changes that we need to make.

The bow roller is not suitable for this anchor. It will not hold it securely when sailing. It also won’t be able to fully self launch (so if you let some chain out the anchor will just sit there until you tilt it a bit by hand). We have been thinking about a lot of options in terms of custom alterations to what we have. We might still go down that route for cost reasons. However, what we want to end up with is essentially a Mantus Bow Roller with their Anchor Mate. By removing the right hand roller and side of our existing bow roller we can fit the Mantus Bow Roller on top of the flat base of our existing bow roller.

Then the next set of connected changes are somewhat bigger (and won’t necessarily happen before we launch for our first sailing season). They are designed to address a number of problems:

  • New windlass isn’t going to fit in the existing locker using the same hole to drop the chain below.
  • We don’t really want a new electric windlass to be sitting in a pool of water and to have slat water sloshing in and taking a while to drain.
  • We want a more direct line route for the chain from the windlass to the stored anchor and bow roller.
  • We need more space for the chain and we want it further aft (back) as it is heavy.
  • We want to fit a removable inner forestay for our storm jib and need a strong-point to attach it to.
  • We love that many newer boat designs have a watertight bulkhead inside the bow so that if you hit something and get a crack or hole right in the front of the boat there is a chance that the leak will be contained behind the watertight bulkhead and you won’t sink.

So the plan (today) is to remove the lid of the anchor locker and cut out the forward section of it’s the floor. Then we will remove the interior woodwork of the v-berth to provide access.

We will then fit a crash bulkhead in several sections all the way from the deck to the bottom aft section of the anchor chain locker. This will be chunky plywood, coated in epoxy, attached on all edges to the hull and deck using thickened epoxy fillets and then glassfibre cloth with epoxy resin. It will have enough watertight inspection hatches in it, that all parts of the hull can be accessed in an emergency. The remaining part of the anchor locker floor will be joined to the new bulkhead for strength and watertightness.

I’m estimating that the gap between the watertight bulkhead and the V of the hull will be about 10cm, so not a large “crash box” but better than nothing.

The inside surface will have a sheet of slippery plastic (such as we have bought for our solar panel slider). So it will act as a shute for the anchor chain which will then slide neatly to the bottom of it;s locker which will be as far aft as possible.

Where the crash bulkhead attaches to the deck will be reinforced so that a chainplate can be fitted for the removable inner forestay.

The old anchor locker hatch will then be strengthened and permanently refitted as part of the solid deck. It will become the base for the new windlass which will sit on the deck (we will make a box/seat that will cover the windlass to give some weather/water protection when it isn’t being used).

We will fit a new chain pipe to go from the windlass down through the old anchor locker. From there the chain will simply slide down using the new bulkhead as a shute.

We will provide an opening door from the forecabin into what remains of the old anchor locker as useful storage.

Then we can reconfigure the forecabin. We don’t think we will have a fixed v-berth but instead 2 foldaway single berths with the option to use the cabin for stowage or with a bench for the sewing machine and a seat.

Finally, our normal anchoring style will be to use a bridle. If you just have the chain then in wind and waves as the bow lifts it can cause the boat to snatch at the anchor, as there is no stretch in the chain. This can jerk the anchor out of the sea bed and cause it to drag. There are examples of boats ending up on the rocks just due to the waves from passing ferries because this happened.

The bridle is made from a nylon, stretchy rope. It has two lengths joined as a V. The point of the V is attached to the chain and the two ends are cleated on the boat, one each side. The chain is loosened and now the springiness of the bridal protects the anchor and boat from snatching.

By using a bridle rather than a single line for anchoring and also for mooring balls we avoid any rubbing against the stored anchor (when on a mooring) or the chain (when anchored). The bridal also helps reduce the tendency for a boat to yaw from side to side when anchored.

That means we have a 2nd bow roller that will very rarely need to be used. So one day we hope to add a removable bowsprit to use for an asymmetric spinnaker or code zero sail to improve downwind and lightwind sailing speeds (and for the spinnaker to be easier to use).

While this might sound like a lot of work it isn’t too complicated and should make a huge difference to how convenient and easy anchoring is. It will make it much easier both to anchor and to raise the anchor, plus it will also improve the reliability of anchoring. Last but not least it will help considerably with safety not just around anchoring but also in strong winds (being able to have a storm jib) and if we ever hit anything. Now that we have the expensive parts (anchor, chain and windlass came to over Β£3,000) the rest is mostly wood, epoxy and time (only exception is sorting the bow roller).

Staycation Electric Motor Progress

So we are coming to the end of our staycation. Managed several walks, one food shop, one visit to the pharmacy.

Cushions

Plus Jane has made lots of progress on the cushions. She has nearly finished all the ones we have foam for. That is all the backrests for the U-shaped part of the saloon finished. Also nearly finished the cushion that goes behind the log bench on the starboard side to make the a great sea berth.

Electric Motor

Meanwhile, I’ve continued to make progress with the electric motor frame. both end frames are complete.

Front and rear motor end plates (outside faces)
Front and rear motor end plates (inside faces)

So I have been able to attach them to the motor, add the shaft, belt pulleys and belt drive (and tension it).

Motor in the frame with the belt tensioned.
Note that the back is deliberately lower as the propeller shaft is not horizontal.

Remaining motor tasks

So just a few tasks left.

While it is already very rigid (each end frame weighs about 10kg) I do want to make sure there is no twisting or other movement between the motor and the shaft).

  • so I need to cut and drill the 4 angle lengths to attach the front and back together at the corners (all but two of the bolts already fitted to the end plates)
  • add one diagonal flat bar per side.

I need to cut a keyway in the shaft to lock the large pulley to it. Then fit both pulleys with keyways.

I haven’t got the right spanner for the big bolts on the bearings yet, that will have to wait until we can get to the boat.

Once we have sorted all that we have a much larger angle length which will be for the two cross bars that rest on the engine mounts (which we have not got yet).

Of course I’ve still got to build a battery box and do all the wiring and fitting. The box for the 4 x 300AH batteries will be positioned just forward of the pulleys. As the box will drop between the original grp coated engine bearers the batteries (2 layers of 2 batteries) will end at about the same height as the motor frame.

Weight comparisons

I’ve done a quick estimate of some of the weights. I can check what we have take out more accurately later. But

Electric Motor + Frame + Batteries (1,200AH) = approx 220kg

Diesel Engine with gearbox approx = 180kg
Two huge stainless steel fuel tanks? Guess more than 80kg (will check)
All the exhaust components, fuel filters etc etc? Guess at least 30kg
Original engine bearers (not being replaced) 20kg
Full load of fuel. Guess 70 gallons which is around 220kg
Starter battery approx 30kg

Total being replaced is over 560kg

So the new Electric motor fully fuelled is 1/3 the weight of the diesel engine fully fuelled. Even compared with empty diesel tanks the electric motor system is 1/2 the weight. And that weight is all in the centre of the hull with a much lower centre of gravity than before. So our boat trim won’t vary as much.

Space gains

Beyond all the weight comparisons there is the space issue. The entire electric motor and battery bank easily fit in just the old diesel engine compartment (with space for house batteries, inverters and solar charge controllers). So we gain 1 fuel tank plus old battery box (for 4 lead acid batteries) into the cockpit locker. Plus we gain the 1 fuel tank space at the side of the corridor to the aft cabin.

And more gains

Then there is the smell! Diesel smells horrible and inevitably over 42 years there have been leaks of fuel and exhaust soot in the boat. All that is going to end up cleaned off and painted. We can already tell the difference, by the time we are finished it will be lovely πŸ™‚

The need for Active Solar power generation

With the our commitment to Zero fossil fuel sailing we have been having to review and update our initial Solar plan. Designing our Solar Arch has been part of that.

The traditional “passive” approach to solar is not going to work for us. By that I mean the idea of putting up a few solar panels and forgetting about them. We need to generate far more electricity from solar than this approach achieves.

So what do I mean by “Active Solar power generation”. Unlike shore based like people living on boats are used to being proactive about energy use and supply. So the mindset includes managing consumption and keeping an eye on battery state. However, for a long time this has been done with the expectation that you can always charge the batteries by running the diesel engine or a generator or by going into a marina and using the shore supply.

We are making a determined effort to keep electric consumption down through a number of deliberate choices:

  • Wind vane self steering, keeping the electric autopilot only for redundancy
  • No freezer. Yup it does constrain the food you can take and keep but fridge and freezer are huge electrical power hogs.
  • Reduced Computer consumption. We are going to be minimising laptop use by having Raspberry Pi single board computers for navigation, entertainment and “office work”. They run on 12 volt.

However, by committing to Zero fossil fuels we are increasing our electric consumption significantly and reducing our energy sources.

Increased consumption:

  • Electric Motor. This uses a lot of energy and is the opposite to the norm. When we motor we will be drawing lots of energy from our batteries rather than putting it in. While we will have regen (charging the batteries when the propeller spins while you are sailing) the change is incredibly significant as the norm is to see the diesel engine as a provider of almost unlimited “free” electricity and hot water. Of course it isn’t free at all, but more a desirable side effect that has resulted in a significant increase in the number of hours the engine is used. So has become a norm to motor whenever the wind speed drops because at the same time you will charge the batteries and heat the water.
  • Electric cooking. All forms of electric cooking (Induction hobs, Microwave, Pressure Cooker) use a lot of power (although mostly for a relatively short time). The norm is to burn bottled gas (occasionally diesel or paraffin). By cutting out another fossil fuel we increase our electric consumption.
  • Dinghy Outboard. We have an electric dinghy outboard engine. So far the boats we have seen with electric motors (Sailing Uma, Beau and Brandy) have not switched to electric outboards (despite the hours they spend maintaining their petrol outboards). In part that is because they want to be able to go faster in the dinghy (see this video from Sailing Atticus for a good reason for this) but it is also about the need to charge the outboard engine battery.

Increased generation

So this is the heart of the challenge. By committing to no fossil fuels all our energy needs to come from renewable sources. We have three options:

  • Engine regen. We are hoping this is going to be significant for us. On longer passages it will do more than recharge the motor batteries from leaving harbour but will contribute something to the daily consumption. It also has the potential to provide power through the night. However, it is only available while sailing and only while you are sailing fast enough (probably won’t contribute much below 5 knots). As liveaboard cruisers typically spend the vast bulk of their time at anchor the contribution isn’t that great.
  • Wind generators. These have the significant advantage of potentially providing significant power at night and through the winter. However, there are problems. Many people complain about the noise and vibration. Fitting them without causing shading on solar panels is a challenge. They do require a lot of wind, probably more than you would normally be looking for in a sheltered anchorage. We’ve looked at the Rutland 1200 but at the moment feel the cost and installation challenges are too great.
  • Solar. The typical installation of solar has been changing quite significantly. For liveaboard cruisers the norm now seems to be to have a solar arch with between 300 and 600 watts of solar panels. That is enough for minimal electric motor use (see Sailing Uma, Beau and Brandy or Rigging Doctor) but not for electric cooking, electric outboard etc.

So Active Solar

This is where our plan differs. We are going to have to be far more active about our solar generation. That means a number of things.

Our solar arch needs to be tiltable to increase it’s efficiency (both Sailing Uma and Beau & Brandy do this but the vast majority of solar arches do not).

When sailing we will need to be active in adjusting our solar generation. Some panel positions will be pretty much setup and forget (such as covering the upturned dinghy on the foredeck with panels before leaving harbour). Others will only be possible in lighter conditions (some along the guardrails for example).

The goal will be to have enough permanent solar when sailing (solar arch and wheelhouse = 510 watts) so that with the regen and battery bank we will be able to get through a gale when we have to put all the other panels below. That shouldn’t be too hard as in those conditions you are not likely to be doing much cooking and you can put off charging the dinghy outboard.

When conditions improve we should be able to sail in light to moderate with an additional 1,050 watts (2 x 175 watts on the dinghy, 4 x 175 watts on the guardrails from the cockpit to the stern. Some of this is going to suffer from massive shading at times so we are assuming it will be about 1/2 as efficient as the solar arch.

Then at anchor we need to have lots of solar panels that come out and are positioned dynamically. We will need to have solar panels positioned above the mizzen boom, around most of the guardrails and possibly above the deck. How many of these we will need is still uncertain (it depends so much on where we sail – if Coronavirus and Brexit mean we have too stay around the UK then we are going to need a lot more solar in Scotland than the Caribbean).

So far we are planning on a total of around 2,400 watts (13 x 175W + 4 x 40W) which so far I have only heard of on large catamarans.

We will need to be active in working with these panels. We will need to adjust the tilt during the day so that as the sun and boat move their efficiency is kept as high as possible. We will need to move them if other boats come alongside or if we are in a marina. We will need to put a lot of them below when sailing.

So I’m going to be building a standardised wooden surround for each panel. This will provide attachment points so that any panel can be fitted to any section of guardrail (and be tilt adjustable) or to the supports above the boom and dinghy. The edging will provide bump protection when moving them around and allow panels to be stacked without scratching the glass. We have chosen the 175W Victron panels as our standard because they are about as large as we can lift, manoeuvrer around the boat and fit through the main hatch into the cabin.

Exactly, where we will store all the panels that need to be “reefed” (taken down) in a gale is currently not fully sorted. Some might go on the aft deck or aft cabin. Some in the corridor to the aft cabin where one of the diesel tanks was. Some in the forecabin (which is likely to be mostly storage when there are only 2 of us).

We are under no illusions that we can achieve zero fossil fuel without ongoing, daily labour to maximise solar generation. But while that might seem a lot of work remember that we won’t spend any time (or money) finding and visiting fuel docks or carrying jerrycans around in the dinghy.

In summary

We believe we can capture several orders of magnitude more solar power than is generally the norm for monohull cruising yachts. But it will require us to work at it every day.

Motor frame ends fit

Progress on the Electric motor frame is very visible now. We have both end plates finished enough to fit them (loosely) to the motor and put the propeller extension shaft in.

As the pulley on the propeller extension shaft extends below the frame I tipped the whole thing on it’s side to check that it fits.

Now just to add the angle lengths around the edges of the end panels, the angle lengths to connect the front and back plates and then the diagonals for rigidity. But that can wait for another day πŸ™‚

Solar arch

We have been trying to work out a design for a solar arch for a very very long time. Designs have come and gone multiple times. When I wrote our Solar Plan back in September, I said “I haven’t quite given up on putting panels off the back of the boat” but at that point we hadn’t make the decision to go for an electric motor and we hadn’t connected the dots with self steering.

So we continued to think about what we can build. This video from Sailing Britaly has continued to be particularly helpful.

But a solar arch on Vida is very complicated πŸ™‚

We have three things that together make it very complicated.

  1. As a typical cruising boat design from the 1970’s our Rival 38 has a relatively narrow stern. That obviously restricts the space available for solar panels compared to a modern design where the beam at the stern could easily be doubled on another 38 foot design.
  2. Then we make it worse by having a ketch rig. Not just a ketch rig but one with a mizzen boom that stretches past the pushpit rail to end level with the very end of the stern. So we need to position the panels to avoid the boom, it’s sheets etc.
  3. Finally the extra thing that makes it difficult is something we don’t yet have. A Hydrovane Self Steering system (I mentioned that this might be needed in Zero fossil fuel sailing). We need vane steering to reduce electric consumption to a manageable level (electric autopilots use a ton of power, I’m guessing a 42 year old even more than a new one). With a centre cockpit and the wheel in a wheelhouse any vane steering that connects to the steering wheel via rope is a non starter. We don’t have space under the aft cabin bunk for a Cape Horn system that connects through the stern directly to the top of the rudder stock. The Hydrovane has the additional advantage of giving us a spare rudder.

So the plan is to shorten the boom a little (120mm). That should work without re-cutting the existing sails. When we replace them we will have a fully battened mizzen with a fat head and a shorter foot so the boom can be shortened a little more (as well as the sail being more efficient).

We have sent the details off to Hydrovane for a quote. We think the unit can be mounted high enough for the van to be above the boom and not hit the sail. The only time it might touch is in very strong winds (when the vane leans over more), but by then the mizzen would be reefed or lowered out of the way.

So now we have been planning the final piece of the puzzle. The solar arch.

We are going to have 3x Victron 175 watt panels high above the stern. That means a rectangle approx 2m wide and 1.5m long. Unfortunately even above the complications that I have already listed we have added 3 more.

  1. As solar generation is so important to us we need to be able to tilt the panels towards the sun to increase their efficiency.
  2. We need to be able to move them forward and aft. In a marina as well as in a storm we do not want solar panels sticking out 1.5m beyond the stern of the boat. So we need a “parked” position where they do not extend beyond the stern but instead extend over the mizzen boom (obviously in this parked position we can’t use the mizzen, a restriction we are happy to accept).
  3. Our budget is limited, we can’t afford to pay a professional to custom build something beautiful in stainless steel. Due to the height and restrictions that reduce the opportunities for cross bracing we don’t think that bolt together fittings (such as used by Sailing Britaly) are going to work. We can only find the range of joint connectors we need, for 25mm tubes which we don’t think is going to be strong enough.

We will document our design as we build it (and I really want to get the mizzen mast up and the hydrvane fitted first to check clearances as we go). However, this is the basic idea.

Two carbon fibre “masts”. The bottoms will be halfway down the stern, one each side. They will be vertical fore and aft (positioned so that the shortened mizzen boom just misses them) and they will slope outwards as they go up. So approx 1m apart at the bottom and just over 2m apart at the top.

There will be a pair of cross braces as an X to hold them vertical side to side. Also each of them will have a pole from just under the boom going forward to the size deck to keep them upright fore/aft.

The 3 panels will be in a tray that fits between the mast tops. We have figured a way for the tray to move to the forward or aft position and also for the whole tray to tilt to face the stern or to face the bow.

Fortunately, we think it is going to be a lot harder to explain than it is to build πŸ™‚

While the carbon fibre poles are quite expensive (over Β£700) everything else is going to be pretty cheap, so hoping to keep the total cost under Β£1,100. That for something that should be very strong, pretty light and give us really good functionality.

Staycation Progress 1

So on holiday this week but still at home. Very much trying not to take risks or push boundaries of the rules.

So today Jane has finished another Saloon backrest:

We have also been making more motor progress. Working on 2 frame back plates, I finished drilling the end stop holes for the 4 slots that are used to attach it to the motor with it’s height adjustment.

The one end plate at a time we started using the Dremel to connect the holes into slots.

We managed to finish all 4 slots in one of the plates and do a test fit. Perfect first time πŸ™‚ On this plate we now need to notch the edge (marked in read) to clear the control wires that come out the back of the motor.

Then repeat the slots in the 2nd back plate.

Once we have the front and back plates all done we can start adding the lengths of angle stainless steel to the edges, plus more to connect the front and back plates at the four corners. Then one flat stainless steel bar per side as a diagonal cross member.

At that point we should be able to add the bearings for the shaft that will connect to the propeller shaft, then the shaft, the belt drive pulleys and the belt drive itself.

The motor throttle is due later this month and the 4th battery (so we will have 4 x 12 volt 300AH batteries connected in series to give 1200AH in total, delivered at 48 volts.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before we are able to get to the boat, at least for a day trip, so that we can collect all the battery cables and crimp connectors. Then we can get it all wired up and tested at home.

Started other 3 motor frame end panels

I’m really pleased with where we have reached today.

I took the plunge and started the other panels for the motor frame. Both the front and back panels are made up of 2x 3mm panels as I couldn’t find 6mm sheet stainless steel. Turns out that was probably a good thing as I don’t think my tools would have coped with 6mm sheets.

So the most critical task was to get bolt holes through all 4 sheets so that I could ensure that the bearings for the shaft are perfectly aligned along the full length of the frame. These were tricky as the 16mm Bosch drill bit I just bought really couldn’t cope with stainless steel. These 4 are the only 16mm holes on the whole frame so I used a 13mm and then widened it.

I’ve also drilled the two holes for the top bar that is used to lift the motor for belt tensioning. Again straight through all 4 sheets so that everything can now be held perfectly aligned.

Here you can see the result.

This photo is a slight cheat as the bearings are temporarily positioned on the wrong side of the plates. What you can see here is the outside face of the front and rear panels. The bearings go on the side face.

The remaining really critical task is marking and cutting the motor bolt slots on the back panel. Not only are the 45 degrees rotated ie NE, SE, SW, NW instead of N, E, S, W but the bolts are 1/2″ instead of the 3/8″ that are used on the motor front face (life would be a lot easier without those differences, but I assume that it is probably for situations where the motor is only bolted to a frame at one end).

Cutting the slots in the 2nd front sheet is straightforward as we just draw round the ones in the first sheet.

Once all the slots are cut we can make the holes for the rest of the angle framing which goes all the way around the back panels. The front panel framing is a bit trickier as it has to avoid the motor and pulleys.

Once the panel edge framing is done we add 4 lengths of angle to connect the front and rear panels at the corners.

Then one diagonal brace per side.

At that point the frame itself is complete. We can then take it to the boat (without the motor in so it is easier to lift) to sort out where the big angled steel lengths need to go (across the frame and sticking out the sides) so that they can rest on the engine mounts with the lower frame shaft perfectly aligned with the propeller shaft.

We still need to source the engine mounts and the coupling to the propeller shaft.

Before we can fit the motor into the boat we need to properly sort everything for the propeller shaft and propeller.

So when we can get on the boat again the biggest part of this still to be sorted is removing the old, stuck, bronze mount for the stuffing box. We think we will need to get a replacement custom milled piece of bronze that will have a flange bolted to the boat and a suitable smooth tube that a modern dripless seal can be fitted to the outside of with the propeller shaft coming through the middle.

As I look at the photo, I’m wondering if we might be able to reuse this. If we can get the last bolt out then maybe I can grind off the flange with the 2 bolt holes that the stuffing box was attached to. That would give a smooth tube to attach the dripless seal to (albeit maybe a rather large diameter difference between it and the propeller shaft). If we can do this it will be fantastic, saving a lot of time and money.

The propeller shaft exits the boat though a cutlass bearing. Ours is worn but there was a new spare on board that we will use. Hopefully as reasonably straightforward job to swap that while everything else is out of the boat.

I think we need to add an internal bearing for the propeller shaft between the dripless seal and the coupling to the motor. The old stuffing box would have supported the propeller shaft in a way the dripless seal won’t. If aligned perfectly, and fixed very rigidly to the hull, it should reduce the wear on the cutlass bearing.

Before the fitting of the motor frame we still have the 2 new composite seacocks to fit for the cockpit drains and the old engine cooling water intake to fill.

Beyond all these mechanical/physical elements to the motor install we have all the electronics and controls to sort out. We have got nearly everything for this area of the work (last battery due in a couple of months, throttle assembly due in a month). So plenty of work still to do.