Remember the best sustainable examples are attainable

Sustainability it a topsy turvy journey where contradictions abound and it turns out that this is good news for those of us trying to be more sustainable.

The loudest voices come from the privileged and wealthy, but they have least to teach us about sustainability. That is good news because most of us can’t afford what they are selling whether it be electric super yachts or anything with luxury in the description.

Those loud privileged voices who are desperately trying to hold onto and increase their wealth and power need to tell us that you can’t do what people have been doing for decades. They want you to forget about the Hiscock’s, and the Pardey’s with their multiple circumnavigations (without the benefit of so much modern technology – including reliable diesel engines).

The need to to tell us that our fantasies, our desires are essential needs (while selling what those fantasies are). That life without lightweight carbon fibre everything, without freezers, air conditioning, huge island double beds, space for large numbers of guests is impossible.

They believe that “sustainable” is a poorly defined term that they can throw around with impunity. They believe adding a solar panel or two to the options list makes hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on exotic materials, most often taking advantage of low labour rates and lack of rights, protections for labour and the environment, in some way sustainable.

Their business model depends on selling us more because they can’t compete on any other terms. Their only understanding of value is lower in sticker price than something that is massively overpriced. They run out of ideas other than bigger is better, most expensive is best.

Yet the reality is that none of this is sustainable, none of this is accessible and very, very few people can do it for long.

But the beauty is that now it is easier to find the stories from people who don’t control the media, who can’t buy exposure, who are not trying to sell us something we don’t need.

This is where we find the really inspiring stories of innovation in sustainability. Pretty much, all rescuing old project boats. So often choosing electric because the diesel wasn’t working and couldn’t be rescued. Often needing to work their way round the world (as the examples from the past often did). Fixing things with local materials, supporting local economies far from exotic resorts.

Look for the people who really engage with local people, watch for the way they refer to them and to their countries, customs, laws etc.

Look for the people who have bought boats for as little as $1. Who learn to be better sailors either because they don’t have much range with their electric setup or because they can’t afford to spend money on diesel – so they actually sail their boats.

There is plenty of good news. When we were looking for our boat, there was a huge choice of potential project boats to suit different preferences. There were boats whose sister ships have sailed around the world for under £5,000.

Of course you could spend more than 10 times that for newish boat the same length (but with more space and less weight carrying ability). You could buy something new enough that the teak decks will look beautiful for another 2 or 3 years before you have to replace them. You can find boats with more spent on the electronics alone than the value of the whole boat.

But if we want sustainable, then find the boats that need your love. Make sure it costs less than a new car to buy (good tip from Free Range Sailing).

Ignore the people who try to persuade you that time refitting a boat is lost compared to time working to pay for boat or that it is better to strive to pay for luxury for a couple of years rather than be out there into the future in something you and the planet can afford.

If we allow the privileged and wealthy to get into our minds and sell us their dreams then they get to enjoy the fruits of our labour without us, and to add insult to injury they will do so at great cost to the planet.

Oh and you don’t have to be the typical young couple with beautiful bodies and successful YouTube channels. It works well for us oldies too. While we refit we get to stay onboard in a beautiful place and not have to pay for holiday accommodation or campsites. We can look forward to a more secure retirement through needing less not worrying about finding more.

But on the other hand we looked at about 1/2 dozen project yachts within a few miles of Vida, ready and waiting for new owners to join the sustainable sailing revolution. Come on in, the water is lovely, accessible, affordable and you can help make it cleaner too 🙂

Watch who you watch

I watch a lot of YouTube sailing channels (especially during the COVID-19 lockdown) 🙂

I do notice that if we are not careful then what we watch directly influences our plans, even our beliefs in what is is possible, especially they influence what we think we need.

I suggest that we need to be picky. Look for the channels and video’s that support your aspirations. Challenge the assumptions and justifications that people have made, often (and this is not a criticism because is normal human behaviour) to make themselves feel better about their choices.

This is going to be especially true when it comes to making choices around sustainability. When we look into it deeply and when we listen to those who have made a real commitment to sustainability, then it is obvious that the impact on every part of life and especially on the typical view of material wealth and consumption is huge and drastic.

It is easy to believe that we need what “successful” cruisers and especially perhaps “successful” cruising YouTubers have and say/believe is needed.

Fortunately, when we reflect on this a) some things are obvious and b) there are alternatives.

Some things are obvious.

If you have already taken steps towards a sustainable life then you already know that you will already not be using things that are sometimes presented as essential. Let’s give some examples:

  • Flights: If it is presented that it is normal, indeed essential to fly frequently, yet you have given up flying at all or reduced it to minimal levels then is it essential. Maybe you need to change your plans for where you cruise so that you can get to visit family without flying – that might restrict you to the same continent.
  • Radar: One of those technologies that is becoming normalised. Those who have it can’t imagine sailing without it. But essential? Easier yes, and yes it allows you to do somethings even in fog with lower risk. But is it the only option? Maybe you need to restrict where you go, or allow longer, or re-route, or have more crew, or go slower. Maybe avoiding situations that would be dangerous if the radar failed? Maybe being more cautious about reefing when you don’t have radar to track squalls?
  • B&G Instruments: It seems to have become like a graduation standard. “We are now proper cruisers because we have all B&G instrumentation”. Of course, the company are very keen for us to believe that which is why high profile channels get sponsored, get special deals etc. Yet go back to the same channels earlier video’s. Did they always have B&G, the “best”? Are there other channels also cruising but without B&G? What about the people who were cruising before YouTube?
  • Electric Motors: if you see people arguing that electric motors are not really practical for a typical cruising yacht then unpack what is behind it? What do they mean by practical and typical? Do you aspire to be typical or to be outstanding? Does practicality require you to average 200 miles a day whatever the weather? Will you only feel safe if you have the speed to avoid a storm? In which case don’t buy a boat from an era when weather forecasting, communications and boat speed made that impossible – or on the other hand embrace that. Buy an older boat that was designed to cope with bad weather because there was no option to avoid it).

So if the goal is to become “successful” meaning you can now afford a new yacht, or the best instruments, that you can choose the best between a catamaran and monohull, that discussions about the “best” boat length for cruising go up by 10 feet, or that suddenly only twin rudders are safe then no problem, look for the “successful” sailing channels.

On the other hand, if the goal is sustainable sailing then look for those channels. The ones refitting old boats on tiny budgets. The ones without the essentials, how they cope with unreliable or broken engines, no dinghy, no electrics, leaks, no fridge or freezer, stuff that had been repaired, whose boats don’t look like a showroom, who have no sponsorships, who have smaller and older boats than you think you need. For me that includes

What others do you recommend?

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 🙂 For example, the nearest marinas to us at Conwy currently cost about £35 a night or £215 a week. A visitors mooring is £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 🙂

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 £3,000) the rest is mostly wood, epoxy and time (only exception is sorting the bow roller).

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.

Sustainable Sailing and Human Power

I’ve been quiet on here during the COVID-19 pandemic so far. More urgent priorities and has seemed inappropriate when so many have been dying, ill or struggling in other ways. However, some countries are now starting to move beyond lockdowns and it now seems more appropriate to focus on building a better future. One that is more human in scale, more caring of people and planet, more sustainable. So here are some thoughts of another aspect of bringing Humans into Sustainable Sailing

With a goal of zero fossil fuels being central to our understanding of Sustainable Sailing there is a big gap in what we have been planning so far.

What about using human power?

I’ve come up with a number of potential uses for human power when Sustainable Sailing. Let’s see if any make sense.

  1. Moving the boat
  2. Replacing electric powered items on the boat
  3. Generating electricity
  4. Getting to/from shore
  5. Getting around on shore

Now we have a list, time to consider them in some detail.

Moving the boat

The best examples I know of for actually moving a yacht by human power come from two races. In the UK The Three Peaks Yacht Race (run to and climb the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland; sail between them; engines only allowed within specified areas of the ports) and the Race to Alaska (No motor, no support, all the way to Alaska.
The physical endurance, saltwater know-how, and bulldog tenacity to navigate the 750 cold water miles from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska). There are great videos from Race to Alaska 2019

My conclusion is that if you want to be able to make any real progress with human power to move a yacht then 3 conditions need to be met

  1. You need a large crew so that you can have people who are rested enough to cope with a storm that follows a long calm where you have been using human power.
  2. The lighter and easier the boat to move the more practical it is. A racing multi-hull is the best option, a live-aboard heavy displacement mono-hull very bad.
  3. So far the most effective solutions for speed are also fragile and take up a lot of space. Neither good for long term cruising.

Therefore, it seems to me that it is better to invest in improved sailing performance in light winds to minimise the amount of time that human power could improve your speed. For shorthanded cruising (eg a couple living aboard) an electric motor is going to be far less risky in harbour situations where you don’t have spare crew or where you need to be able to cope with tides and headwinds while manoeuvring.

Replacing electric powered items on the boat

Probably the only electric powered item that we plan to have that we could easily (and more cheaply) replace with a human powered version, is the windlass for raising and lowering the anchor.

The electric windlass we are fitting can be used manually. However, having an electric windlass seems to us to be a great safety feature.

It allows us to have a much heavier anchor and chain,

it means we won’t put off moving to a more sheltered anchorage because we don’t want to manually raise the anchor,

if you need to leave an anchorage in bad conditions we won’t start sailing while physically exhausted from raising the anchor.

It raises the anchor much faster, which with the saving in physical effort makes sailing on and off anchor much easier

So we think investing in better electrical capacity is a better option here.

More and more yachts, particularly larger ones now have electric winches and/or electric sail furling. We plan to stick to manual as long as we are physically capable, possibly getting an electric powered winch handle rather than a whole winch when we need help.

Most of our other electrical systems are cooking or water related. So far no obvious human powered options (water-making would be great but falls far short of daily needs for a lot of effort).

Generating electricity

How about using a bike or something to generate electricity while we exercise? Our conclusion is that it can’t generate enough to be worthwhile (especially when you factor in a small crew). Time and money better spent ensuring maximum power from your solar by keeping it clean, shadow free and pointing at the sun.

Getting to/from shore

This is where I believe it starts to get very interesting.

We have gone for probably the most popular dinghy style (A rigid inflatable with aluminium hulls). Having inflatable hulls makes getting on and off the boat so much easier and safer with no risk of damage. An aluminium hull is both lighter than the traditional grp and much tougher for dragging up beaches (it is also fully recyclable). Ours is a Highfield Classic 290 which we should be able to store on our fore deck when sailing (just in front of the main mast), it also fits inside our van for transport to and from home (nowhere to keep it near the launching place near our mooring).

Ribs are pretty rubbish to row (the hull is too wide with too much water and wind drag, plus the seating position is inefficient. So we have an electric motor, but that means we sacrifice speed, it won’t be possible to plane (but we don’t expect to want to zoom to fantastic diving spots for example).

Could human power provide an alternative? We have looked at various “toys” to use when at anchor. SUP’s (stand-up paddle boards) are very popular and the inflatable ones easy to store. But practical and useful they are not, unless it is warm enough to wear just a swimming costume and you don’t need to go far and it is smooth water without much wind and you don’t want to carry anything. An inflatable kayak is a little better in practicality.

So instead we are wondering about carrying something designed to row well. The best option that we have found is from Angus Rowboats, they have an amazing track record (first human powered circumnavigation, rowing across the Atlantic, coming first in the under 20 feet category of the Race to Alaska). They have this beautiful Oxford Wherry available as plans or a kit. I’ve had a chat with Colin Angus and we agree it should be possible to make a minor adjustment so that the wherry can be divided into 3 nesting parts for storage on deck (we think it would fit on our aft cabin). We think that this would be the most efficient human powered dinghy that you could carry on a yacht. With a sliding seat you will be able to carry yourself and a passenger to explore rivers and harbours at a similar speed to our outboard engine on the rib.

We don’t think this would be suitable for our only tender, the key issues is that with the sliding seat you have to have outriggers for the oars and this makes coming alongside a yacht very difficult without causing damage (so instead we will use the rib as a dock/boarding platform). The lack of an engine option makes carrying large amounts of shopping or fighting the fast tide in the Menai Strait unattractive.

Getting around on shore

It amazes us how few of the sailing YouTube channels carry bikes with them to get around on the shore, particularly to go shopping. In a recent video Beau and Brandy had a 30 minute walk to the supermarket. They then had to push the loaded trolley back before an hours round trip returning the trolley.

Matt and Amy on Sailing Florence seem to be the best sorted with two Brompton bikes but we think they too are missing a key thing to transform using bikes for shopping. What they need is a trailer. For us there are two stand-out options (they need to fold and they need to be suitable for any bike and they need to resist corrosion). If we didn’t already have a trailer then the Cyclone Range from Radical Design are brilliant. The other option (and yes we have one) is from Carry Freedom We have an old Large Y-Frame but there are other options now. Here is mine in use (Cargobike sadly not so suitable for fitting on board boats, plastic box is just bolted on, anything else could be used). It works as a hand cart too for getting right to the loading point.

Conclusion

By far the most cost effective and transformative use of human power in Sustainable Sailing is a bike with a trailer.

A good rowing dinghy (probably in addition to a RIB) comes second.

For everything else your energy is better used improving your boats sailing ability and electrical generation and storage.

Navigation progress

How about this!?

A Raspberry Pi 4 running OpenCPN on a Cello 12 volt TV. With a wireless keyboard/trackpad.

Obviously lots more to do as I haven’t loaded any charts yet. Nor have I connected a GPS, so it doesn’t know where we are yet. Also not yet got AIS (which automatically shows ships positions, courses and speeds as well as telling them yours so you don’t collide).

Going to be able to add a touchscreen that we can put in the cockpit. All for a tiny fraction of the cost of “proper” chart plotters. Plus it gives me essentially a full power desktop computer running on 12 volts as well as a TV.

We have our cabins back for the night.

The paint has dried in the aft cabin and it is a lot more spacious without the lockers under the side decks (painted white also helps). The black insulation used to reach the bottom of the lockers so you can see how much extra height is above it now.

Plus we have the next saloon cushion in place.

This will have a triangular cushion behind it (making it a really comfortable bunk when on passage) and also a nice sloping backrest. Originally the back rest hinged up to become a top bunk. We don’t think we are going to have that (not agile enough to climb into it for a start).

The biggest Electric Motor difference compared to Diesel

The biggest difference is availability.

With an electric motor instead of a diesel in your boat you can achieve the same/similar performance in power/speed. At the same time you can get better reliability and lower maintenance.

However, the biggest difference is that you have to manage availability.

With a diesel availability is taken for granted. We assume that if you have fuel the engine is available:

  • whenever you want it
  • however long you want it
  • at whatever speed you want it

these are not the same with an electric motor as everyone of them depends on your management, preparation and planning around availability of the battery bank.

Note that here I’m talking about electric motors that use battery banks that are charged primarily from renewable energy. If you have a generator (usually diesel in this case) that can generate the same power as the motor uses then you are in the same situation as with a diesel engine.

What affects availability?

There are three key variables that affect how much electric motor availability you have at any particular time. All these need to be managed and none of them can be changed instantly at the point of need.

Hence, using an electric motor requires a mindset, especially changes in how you manage the boat and the plans you make.

The three variables are:

  • Technical specifications (particularly of battery bank and renewable energy generation)
  • What you have been doing up to this point (ie what state is your battery bank in at this moment)
  • What you are planning to do (and what contingency plans you have made)

What makes things easier?

Spending more on the technical specification increases your capacity and reduces the amount of management and planning you need to do. For example a bigger battery bank or a larger solar panel array both mean you will have more capacity available and so less need to manage the capacity and the plans become easier to make.

Choosing a catamaran makes things easier as there is always going to be more space for solar panels.

Cruising less often or less intensively makes things easier as you have longer between passages to charge your batteries.

Cruising is warmer climates makes things easier as there will be more sun to get more power out of your solar panels (at the extreme, solar panels are going to be of zero use in a polar winter with 24 hours of darkness).

Longer passages (as long as there isn’t a tight schedule) makes things easier as you can sail for days while charging the battery bank ready for the next landfall.

Better sailing performance with special focus on light winds and going to windward (when people are most likely to motor or motor-sail)

What makes things more difficult

Tight and fixed deadlines.

Wanting hands off systems where you pay someone to do the maintenance and then have instant and complete availability 24/7.

Always available “luxury” (air conditioning, hot water, heating, large freezers and fridges, electric autopilot, electric winches)

Complicated coastal waters (tidal inlets, long and narrow harbour entrances, big marinas, headlands with big tidal streams, lots of traffic)

Managing availability

Diesel inboard engines have managed to create a reputation of always being available and for most weekend sailors this has been the reality. The engines get professionally serviced each year, they are not run many hours, people avoid bad weather and they keep their boats where high quality fuel, parts and expertise are all available. As you go further and for longer, especially to remote places, this changes a bit with care needed over fuel quality and parts availability being more challenging as well as having to be more self sufficient in maintenance skills. So management of availability with diesel engines is only an issue for more adventurous, intensive cruisers.

On the other hand Electric motors require a far more hands-on management process for all cruisers as the battery capacity is far less than a fuel tank and the rate of charge from renewable sources far slower. This means planning ahead and that has a much bigger impact on those who have not had to do this least with diesel engines.

If I motor-sail now to speed the passage, will I have enough battery left to motor into the harbour or up the river? That means thinking about tides/currents and the weather (how much solar power will I generate during the passage).

It means thinking about what might be needed in the next few days. Suppose the wind gets up from a different direction, do I have enough battery left to motor away from the anchorage if it becomes unprotected tomorrow.

It means being very aware of both consumption and generation. If I run the watermaker then when am I going to recharge the batteries, might it reduce the ability to get in or out of a harbour.

It will mean changing passage planning. Probably needing to be more flexible. If the wind drops you might not be able to motor fast enough for long enough to make a tidal gate.

Many sailors using harbours such as Chichester, have a working assumption of motoring from deep in the harbour to the open sea whatever the tide is doing. That might fully use your battery capacity with an electric motor.

If you are cruising outside the tropics in the winter your solar generation might only be 10% of what you would get in the Bahamas. The total power you can use over a period of time will be dramatically reduced so you will need to pay far more attention maximising the generation eg adjusting the angle of your panels (actively pointing them at the sun to increase their effectiveness), to keeping them clean and free of shade.

In some ways this is going back to ways of the past when yacht engines were unreliable and not powerful enough to push you against an unfavourable tide so that you didn’t factor motoring and consistent/predictable passage times into your plans.

What we are doing to handle this?

On the technical side

  • Efficiency is key everywhere. A brushless electric motor is better than one with brushes. Switch to low power everything eg LED, self contained solar powered wind sensors, wind vane self steering.
  • Lithium batteries. At the moment Lithium-ion phosphate (LiFePo4) technology has the edge with higher capacity, faster discharge and charge rates, able to be more fully discharged without damage.
  • Simple and basic. We are starting with no fridge or freezer in the UK. No electric winches, no electric toilets.
  • Improve the sailing performance as much as possible. So we are replacing a back of mast furling system with slab reefing on a longer boom with a larger sail area supported by battens. We are looking to changing from a single point mainsheet to a track. We are cutting lots of weight from the interior and systems.
  • Adjustable solar panels that allow extra capacity be deployed at anchor and in calm conditions.
  • We are keeping separate banks of batteries for house and motor while having the ability to transfer energy from either bank to the other
  • We have invested in a significantly oversized anchor to reduce the chances of having to evacuate anchorages.

Management

We are using Victron monitoring tools (battery bank monitor, mppt controllers) that give us the most data possible on past and present energy generation and consumption.

We are following a revised version of the tradition that the engine starter battery should be kept separate from the house bank. This requires larger battery capacity overall and some extra components, however, we believe that this complexity does give us the reassurance of being able to protect our motor availability. At the same time, when in a protected anchorage we can choose to charge the house bank from the motor bank if you have a few cloudy days and are using a lot of power (maybe for clothes washing, cooking, or hot water). On the other hand when leaving an anchorage we can charge the motor bank (albeit not very fast) from the house bank although with the understanding that might mean we need tot turn off the house items such as electric autopilot, or fridge & freezer or no induction cooking. So our version has has some separation but also allows us to run DC to DC chargers at anytime to be able to “steal” power from one battery bank to charge the other.

Expectations

More than anything else having an electric motor with a fossil fuel free goal means having realistic expectations. We expect to

  • sail on passages, using the electric motor for marinas, rivers and tight harbours
  • have more variable passage times as we won’t be using the motor to keep consistent average speeds
  • work more closely with the tides rather than be able to motor against them
  • work hard at maximising solar generation by using additional panels that have to be moved around, by tilting panels to their most efficient angles
  • work hard at minimising consumption of all appliances
  • by motoring more slowly to significantly increase range

Conclusions

I’d started this several times as a post about the disadvantages of electric motors, but I’d struggled with it. That is because, unless you have an unlimited budget, the issues are all about attitudes and expectations.

If you believe in reducing fossil fuel use then the differences are entirely manageable.

If you are not concerned about fossil fuels and the climate emergency then the inconvenience of managing availability is going to appear a deal breaker.

The technology is changing fast and modern boat design trends (such wider beam carried aft, fewer ketch rigs) make it simpler to fit larger solar capacity. It is likely that over the next few years there will be further gains in battery capacity. Monitoring and Management will be more sophisticated and automatic. So gradually the need to manage availability will diminish, especially for weekend sailors as a battery bank that is fully charged at your home marina will cope with a weekend of sailing and motoring.

Inspiring stepping up by Sailing la Vagabonde

This is worth watching. Sailors willing to turn their plans upside-down and venture into danger to support change and stand tall for responding to the Climate Emergency. Watch and cheer them on (knowing that they did succeed and Greta Thunberg was able to challenge world leaders at COP in Madrid).
It is in the hope of encouraging others that that we started this Sustainable Sailig documentation of our own journey
(Oh and the video is worth watching if you like cute babies too)

A beyond our dreams yacht

The sailing channels are full of amazing boats. What used to be the sailing magazines that my Dad would buy have been replaced by YouTube channels like Yachting World.

Consistently they present, as if it were normal a world view that everyone will be buying a brand new boat and that these days nobody would consider anything smaller than 40 feet (and that only if it is a “modern” shape which gives about 50% more accommodation than a more traditional design).

So the boats they show off start at about £ 1/2 million (over 20x more than we paid for Vida and nearly 10x what we will have spent by the time we retire to live on her).

So they are far, far beyond our dreams, expectations and none of them have much focus on sustainability in any form.

To be honest not many of them are very attractive to us either. We absolutely do not need or want so much space, we absolutely do not want our sailing to be totally dependent on electrical power for sail control (especially as they all require fossil fuel electric generation).

Yes, nearly all of them will be much faster than Vida (so what, we are not planning to race). Their huge, flat wide sterns and twin rudders will be give more control downwind. Yet the costs of these benefits are huge (mooring/haulout/storage/repairs/complexity etc etc). With our experience a 38 foot boat still seems huge and daunting, we don’t want more 🙂

Yet, I admit that I have just watched a video of one boat that if you happen to give me would be awesome (even if I’d want you to give me the money to make her fossil fuel free).

Actually, I think you would need to give me about £5M. I could buy a 5 year old Garcia Exploration 45 for about £1/2M, keep another £1/2M to keep her and ourselves in luxury for the rest of our lives and then give the £4M away to assuage my guilt at such indulgance 😉

However, there is a lot we can learn from such experienced sailors as Pete Goss and Jimmy Cornell that we can and are putting into practice with our work on Vida. Plus others that we feel they and the rest of the sailing world need to learn about sustainable sailing in the light of the Climate Emergency and connected issues such as plastic pollution.

So what are we trying to learn and implement?

  • Redundancy: For example by adding a Hydrovane wind vane self steering we have 2 rudders, 3 self steering options, 3 hand steering options. Similarly with two battery banks, multiple solar panel circuits, two inverters, two electric hobs etc we have few single points of failure. See my post “The problems of interconnected systems
  • Insulation. Very clearly the levels of insulation make the Garcia Exploration 45 very quite and comfortable. We can’t get anything like as much but we are replacing the traditional ply plus foam backed vinyl with a minimum of 10mm closed cell foam and we already see it making a significant difference.
  • Understanding. Garcia do a week of training for new owners and provide lots of documentation. We are building up complete hands on experience of just about every single part of the boat.
  • Maintenance. A boat you don’t have to keep fixing things on. Our route to a similar goal is quite different. We are doing it through simplicity. eg changing from 3 fossil fuels + electricity to renewable electricity only, removing every seacock (apart from cockpit drains), composting toilets, no refueling or concerns with fuel quality.

What can’t we do?

  • An Aluminium hull and watertight bulkheads making the boat pretty worry free where there is ice in the water (but we can’t see a fossil fuel free heating system that would cope with such climates anyway)
  • A swim platform at the stern. Going to “make do” by sorting the best possible boarding system on the side of the boat.
  • A full deck saloon. We will be making sure we can enclose our wheelhouse for full water protection if not as warm as being “indoors”.
  • Have as much storage space. But we are creating more by getting rid of the diesel engine and tanks, the gas cylinders and the paraffin tank. Also by having less space for long term guests.

What they can’t do?

  • A brand new boat can’t have the same low carbon footprint as a 42 year old boat. We are keeping a cost the planet has already paid from being thrown away rather than using new resources (I’m guessing that everything we put onto Vida in new resources will be dwarfed by the fossil fuel impact of a few tonnes of diesel used each year).
  • Make a brand new 45 luxury boat as unattractive to thieves as a 42 year old 38 foot boat.
  • Reduce the cost to get to ocean crossing by a factor of 10

Maybe it is just self-delusion but we really don’t watch these video’s of new or larger boats and feel we wish we could have one. Well maybe except occasionally a Garcia Exploration 45 with an electric motor 😉