Monday, September 12, 2016
Simple electric sailing
Big and complicated ruins everything. One of the things I've always enjoyed about sailing is how simple it can be. All you need is a stick in one hand, a line in the other and off you go. Of course, as boats get better, things get complicated. Complicated means expensive.
My recent issue of Sail Magazine has a long article about electric propulsion on boats. The focus of the article mostly concerned hybrids, a combination of fossil fuel and electric engine. It's sorta like a Prius of the sea. In my eyes the big problem is how complicated everything is. You have all the issues with having a diesel or gas engine, plus a very high tech electric motor/battery system.
Of course, I'm the guy who didn't like the complexity of a 6hp 2 stroke outboard on my Oday 19. I know a fair bit about small engines. Even when the throttle broke and the parts disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico I was able to rig a temporary fix.
Now I have a simple electric trolling motor. Plug it in and go. Maybe something could damage the prop, but I've got a spare one of those. If the motor fails, replacement is fast and fairly cheap. Everybody carries them. The boat already had a small solar electric system. Not only do I not have to haul gasoline around, the sun refuels the battery for me.
Of course, that's on a small 19 foot boat. What about a bigger boat? Lets say something big enough for a couple to live on. The sailing Uma people pulled the old diesel engine out of their sailboat and replaced it with an electric motor. They could have bought a special marine drive system, but instead made their own using a forklift motor. They were pretty clever and saved a bundle.
So how well does it work if you want to motor all day? In short, you can't. What if you use a generator to charge the battery that powers the electric motor? That sorta works, but is horribly inefficient. Maybe if you had a generator anyway and needed just a little more power to go a few more miles it might be worth it.
Here's the thing. They are SAILboats. There are plenty of people traveling the world in boats that don't have any engine at all. An electric engine is perfect for things like getting in or out of harbors. Last year I was halfway across an 8 mile long lake when the wind died completely. Our little electric motor easily moved us the 4 miles back to the dock. It wasn't fast, but it did the job and there was plenty of battery power left.
So what do you do when your boat becomes becalmed? You make yourself a nice cup of coffee and find some other way to entertain yourself. Also have good ground tackle to anchor. Have plenty of provisions to wait it out.
One thing I've noticed is that a lot of people will motor even if the wind is blowing. Some people treat sailboats like they are motorboats with big sticks. Others will motor because while they are moving, it's not fast enough for them. Then there are those who motor because they never bothered to learn to sail really well.
That's great for sailboats, but so what? Here's what. The principles of simplicity apply to many different machines and systems. The simpler something is, the less likely things will go wrong and the more likely it is that you can fix it yourself.