Sunday, September 19, 2010

Initram is lightning fast and sails like a dream

This morning we were up early to watch the sun rise, say goodbye to Leigh (who is off to NY for work and a little fun), and then out to the Toronto Islands for some sailing. After a quick look at a bilge pump that is acting up we rigged up the boat faster than ever. With Dad (Ian M. Wilson) at the helm, we motored quietly with our electric motor out into Toronto Harbour. Claire and her friend Tiffany raised the main and then jib in a very gentle breeze. Then we made directly for the eastern gap at a slow, some would say glacial pace, under very slow wind speeds. Towards the south end of the channel we got some wind, made a quick tack around south-west and started our slow sail through the gap out onto the lake.

The sun was shining, it was fairly warm, with a gentle breeze as we chitty chatted our way out, complaining mildly about how slow we were going, with other sailboats motoring by us in a hurry. Not us. We mostly kept to our sails and even if we did use a bit of electricity to drive the motor nobody would have known as we were pretty much silent. Rounding the second green buoy we caught some decent wind and starting making good steady progress towards Port Credit off somewhere in the distance. What a sight. Hundreds of sailboat out on the lake racing, a gentle light blue sky and sun. Nobody on the nude beach...perhaps a tad cold for no clothing.

We passed a couple of other larger sailboats on our way out feeling pretty cheeky. Then lunch at 12:14 as our stomachs started growling. You could actually hear them as the airs were light and the boat sailing smoothe and quiet. We enjoyed our Turkey sandwhiches and salads, with lemonade and iced tea...perfec! A few pretzels for veggies, then some delcious Aero chocolate balls for desert. 

About half way to Port Credit we decided to head back for port just before passing some more larger sailing boats...didn't want to embarass them. So, we did a quick tack right around and started heading east back to the islands. Half way back Claire Wilson took the helm with confidence and a subtle smile on her face. Up ahead was a beautiful forty footer under full sail making progress in the same direction as us. Hmmm, a race perhaps? Claire and crew, despite making any trimming of any sails started making good progress at making up the distance. As we neatly passed the larger vessel you could see the other helm looking in disbelief, up and down his sails, then back at could Initram that young girl at helm be zipping past? Claire maintained a stern face, looking ahead mainly, not wanting to gloat, as we passed and then made more and more progress. Wow, Claire, you are doing great! A smile...yes, yes, she was.

Right into the eastern gap Claire maintained helm. Just before the turn in as John took helm, we made a perfect running jibe and under a beam reach zipped through the channel, lowered sails and were at the dock in no time. Ian M. Wilson took helm for the final docking procedure which was done to perfection. We even remember to put down the bumpers (no....actually they are "fenders" why can't I remember that?). 

A perfect day of sailing the likes of which I've been dreaming of for years. Get out and sail it is pure wonderous freedom.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to convert your sailboat from gas/diesel to electric

Sailing is a beautiful way to travel. It is fast, quiet, and fun. If you are like me there is a great feeling when you are able to turn off the motor (which is typically very noisy) and start sailing. Naturally the idea of a quiet motor that doesn't need to be filled up with fuel would be appealing to any sailor, at least in our dreams. So, does the option of a switch to an electric motor offer this dream up as reality?

First, let me explain that at first blush you might ask why even consider this option since I could find no other example of anyone in this area doing something like making a switch to electric motor for their sailboat? Surely, if it was such a reasonable idea somebody else would be doing it. Secondly, if there are no others doing it then surely it must not be a very good idea? And yet, it may be the case that nobody has tried it because the answer to the first question has prevented anyone feeling comfortable enough to move forward to try it to verify whether it is a good idea or not.

In my own case I've been using renewable energy (solar PV and wind turbines) to generate electricity at my house for the past ten years. In fact, we have no furnace, no gas/oil bill, and only use renewable energy sources for all our needs in the house (for all the details see So, given my own personal experience, achieving this objective with our forty year old 35 foot C&C sailboat seemed like a reasonable possibility.

With a few mouse clicks and a google search I found Electric Yacht (  After reviewing a few of their conversion stories and youtube web videos I was convinced we could make this work on our boat. In addition, since our forty year old Atomic 4 gasoline engine was in need of some expensive repairs and a steep learning curve for us novice sailors, the switch to electric would make the task of managing the maintenance and up-keep of the motor much easier. Of course, it has always been clear that there would be limitations in switching to electric. The battery system and their cost would be limiting factor on how far we would be able to travel using the motor. I could see very little chance that it would match the distance a full tank of gas would allow. However, I also understood that 90% of the time we would be using the motor primarily to get on and off the dock. Still, in an emergency and during longer passages we'd need to be sure we understood the limitations of the batteries ability to deliver power, for instance in a storm. Also, the question of sufficient power was also a concern, although the choice of electric motor (larger or smaller) could largely alleviate this concern...although with the connection that a larger motor, drawing more power, would affect run time limitations with the battery.

Working to determine the best solution for our boat we came up with the selection of a 10 kW (roughly 17 hp) electric motor as a reasonable replacement for the Atomic 4 for our particular needs. Of course we could have selected the 20 kW motor for additional power. For batteries, we ended up selecting four high quality Odyssey AGM deep cycle batteries. Although lithium ion batteries are an option that may provide substantially more storage and far less weight, their cost is currently two to three times that of AGM. As electric cars enter the mainstream we can expect the lithium batteries to become the cost, weight, and storage option of choice.

A few things that make electric motors more interesting than you might think for longer journeys with a sailboat. While underway sailing a fixed prop will turn the electric motor making it a generator that will charge your batteries while you sail from port to port. In addition, as in our case, by adding some solar panels (and wind turbine), as well as a backup biodiesel generator, it is quite easy to create a system with run times the equivalent, if not superior, to pure gas/diesel options.

So, then, how much does it cost? Well,  our 10 kW brushless electric motor kit (includes controller, throttle, motor, and mounting brackets) from Electric Yacht was US$4,995 plus shipping (from the US). The 4 large Odyssey 1800 rack mountable AGM batteries were about  CAN$3,300. An Analytics charge controller was about CAN$2,200. Finally, the installation, done by Lorne Spence from Genco was approximately $3,400 (roughly 40 hours). So, it certainly is more than a new gas or diesel engine. However, we have essentially zero fuel costs for the life the motor and we expect fewer maintenance costs as electrics tend to be very reliable.

As for how the system performs in the real world...for that you'll have to read earlier blog entries and keep an eye out for future updates. In a word...the system works beautifully. She is quiet, powerful, and has enough run time and then some for all of our needs thus far (trips across Toronto Harbour and back, and we think enough to do a couple hours at 3-4 knots). Hope this helps get you thinking about an electric as viable alternative if you are thinking of replacing your aging gas/diesel engine on your sailboat. If you have question I'd be happy to try to answer them. Just send me a note at

For a fellow sailors view of the experience with our electric powered sailboat check out his excellent blog: Ian Hoar - Wind and Sail.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Electric motor and setting sail for the open waters

Yesterday we rigged up Initram for an afternoon sail to watch the QCYC regatta. It was a perfect day for a run with the new Electric Yacht electric motor on a beautiful sailing day. Leigh and I were joined by Kim who we did our basic sailing course with. The skies were pretty clear. We had a good 10-15 knots of wind. Lots of boats were heading out. So, after BBQed burgers for lunch we set sail.

The electric seems to be running more and more smoothly. As we go by the QCYC dinghy garage Steve yells over "turn on your motor" as we silently glide by with our electric doing about half speed. Out into the Toronto Harbour and we swing out wide to put the boat into the wind to raise the sails. Up she goes without a hitch as you'll see in the video clip I've added to this blog entry.

Out through the eastern gap and what a sight. Thousands of sailboats sailing around off in the distant for the regatta and fun. The channel is busy but we sail through confidently with the electric motor at the ready. Our boat seems to make very good way as we pass several boats sailing alongside us on the way out. We confidently move ahead of the old tourist boat jammed packed with tourists.

Out on the open lake we enjoy the view and some great sailing in good winds. We each took turns at the helm and various crew positions. We are finally sailing as we've been dreaming of doing for months and years. What a wonderful feeling of freedom. Where should we go now...Nova Scotia, New York, Tahiti, or Kuala Lumpur? The world beckons.

On our speedy sail back to the club docks we take the sails down with a minimum of fuss. The jib lines somehow break free at the clew. Somehow the locking pin has allowed the lock to come undone. Hard to imagine how. In any case, we grab the sail, pull it down and plan to fold it up when we get to dock. The main sail comes down okay except once again the topping lift clip comes unclipped and is saved by the figure eight knot in the end as it catches on the pulley system. Again, not a problem, I simply reach up and reset the clip properly and we bring the main sail down.

Now we race in with five or six other sailboats to the clubhouse. On our starboard side just behind us a fellow sailor coming in to dock yells out "you've got a problem, there is no water coming out of your exhaust". I think for a couple seconds. Ahh, yes, if we had the old gasoline engine you would expect water to be coming out of the exhaust as the water is used to cool the engine down. I yell back "we're electric". A strange look from our fellow sailor.

What a wonderful day of sailing. Thanks to our friend Kim for sharing this wonderful day with us and many more to come.

Electric motor performs well in high winds

Now that we've run the electric motor through a number of trials it turned out that it was time to see how things performed in rough weather and high winds. Braving gusts up to 30 knots, with steady winds in the 20 knot range we began our sail in lighter winds earlier in the day. Reversing out of our slip on this windy day meant thinking about the last time we had winds coming in hard from the north. In preparation I had told the crew, Scott and Paul, that we may need to turn south rather than north as the bow might get swung around to the south before we could make any headway and get any steerage. As you may recall this is what happened when we had a mishap with our dinghy motor attached. I've learned you want to try and work with the wind especially when it is blowing hard.

So, with a our boat out into the QCYC lagoon and the bow quickly being blown to the south I decided we'd loop around south with the wind, do a U-turn and then head out into Toronto Harbour. This monoveure worked well and we began to head for the high winds out in the harbour. The electric motor provided good steady thrust as the wind began to hit us harder and harder rounding the corner out into open waters. With the extra winds I maintained extra speed to ensure we had good steerage and momentum goind directly into the wind.

With all of this being a new system I wondered if we'd have enough power to drive into the wind so we could raise our sails without being driven in reverse by the waves and wind. To my pleasant surprise we made good progress forward and were able to raise the sails with ease despite the two to three foot waves and heavy winds. I took some care to keep us moving directly into the wind as would be expected. All went well. I kept the motor ready as we sailed for the eastern gap to head out onto Lake Ontario. At one point the wind completely died for a minute or so. I ran the electric for that time to keep steerage and progress especially as I knew the wind would come back hard as we passed the southern edge of the gap. It did start moving very vast  once we passed the southern end of the gap. Off we went at full steam. We got her up to about 8 knots sailing. It was a great steady hard wind with some really exciting gusts that got us really heeled over.

After sailing out on the lake we made our way back into the harbour to drop Paul off city side. This was another first for me and the electric motor. We lowered the sails in even heavier winds...apparently getting up to the 30-40 knots either during or shortly after we brought down our sails. The main sails topping lift that is clipped onto the end of the boom popped off as we lowered the main sail. Fortunately the figure eight knot caught on the pulley that attached to the topping lifts line and it only fell a foot or so. Still, we got the main sail down okay and repaired that problem at dock. With the electric going about 80% we powered towards the city in the heavy winds and waves. Fortunately the city buildings provided some shelter from the winds out of the north as we neared the public dock behind the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel. With fine control I pulled up to the dock, used heavy reverse to bring us to a full stop, Paul jumped off and up onto the main land, and off Scott and I went back to QCYC to pack up for the day. All went very well and the Electric Yachts motor felt very sure and steady in these rough conditions.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Electric Yacht, electric motor, trial run

The smiles on our faces says it all. Lorne has done a wonderful job of completing the electric motor installation with the help of Electric Yacht who have supplied the motor, controller, and monitoring system. With the final throttle mechanism supplied by Electric Yachts installed and the monitor screen installed where the old ignition system controls were we were ready to head out for our first trial run.

Up and down Toronto Harbour we go at 4-5 knots, keeping pace with the other sailboats motoring out for race night. She handles beautifully and easily coming out of the slip. The throttle mechanism is responsive and easy to use. For our trial run I pull the release on the throttle and ease it back in reverse. Ian (Dad) and Lorne release the dock lines and off we go. Once we are out of the slip moving nicely backwards with full steerage I make the switch to forward. I first slow reverse and it then clicks into neutral. The boat is silent as we continue moving backwards. I then pull the release and easy the throttle forward. She responds quickly and powerfully forward with great steerage. We pull quickly out of the QCYC docks and out into the Toronto Harbour at a medium speed.

As a part of our trial run Lorne is checking the sounds and vibrations below in the motor room, reviewing the RPM/Volts/Amps/Hours Remaining/Charge Level as we go. All looks good. We make 4-5 knots at full power. Lorne thinks we will do better once we change the propellor (it is currently a small retractable one that is not correctly sized to give us optimal power nor charge when under sail). Quite astonishingly we are talking and discussing the wonderful experience without having to shout and yell above the engine noise. There is a whirring noise from the electric but it is certainly nowhere near as noisy as a gas or diesel engine...something we will no doubt now take for granted.

After a forty five minute cruise we are still with 95% charge. The monitor on the port side near the helm is amazing. It constantly updates us with the critical "hours" remaining so that we can determine how far we can go under the current battery state. Of course the number fluctuates as we increase and decrease speed. By slowing down we significantly increase the hours we can run the electric motor. Of course the slower speeds means we'll make less distance. The quick calculations we do then is to say how many knots are we doing and then with the battery monitor telling us remaining hours on the batteries we can determine how far we can go. We think the optimal speed with the current prop which needs to be changed is about 3-4 knots. We should be able to get around 3 hours of run time with our 4 AGM batteries with the current setup at that say 3 knots speed. That should take us around Toronto Island for instance.

All and all a great trial run. What a thrill to have worked through all the details and have this wonderful system working. Lorne from Genco as well as Bill and Scott from Electric Yacht have done a fantastic job. Actual hours to install the electric motor system, batteries and electronics looks to be about two or three days. According to Lorne installing the new electric motor system was far easier than rewiring the 40 year old boat.

Well, now it is time to go sailing. See you out on the lake this weekend folks...we'll be the quiet boat motoring out of QCYC. Thanks again to Lorne, Bill and Scott. Great work and a wonderful project. Well done. This is the future!