Jan 22, 2013

Cruising Without an “Iron Jenny”: One+ Year Update

To be yourself in a world that is constantly 
Trying to make you something else is 
The greatest accomplishment.
Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Our 'Frankenstein' electrical switches to go from 12V to 60V
One of our experiments living aboard and cruising on Déjàlà is to NOT use an internal combustion (diesel or gasoline) engine for propulsion. We removed the Atomic 4 gas motor shortly after purchasing the boat.

For marina entrances, tight quarters, backing down on the anchor, etc, we installed an electric outboard. Ray Electric outboard uses 60V DC, supplied by ten Trojan L-16 batteries connected in series. A set of switches allows the battery bank to be connected to power house loads at 12V DC. A house bank of over 2,000 amp/hours has proven to be more than adequate! Overall the switch has added 200# to Déjàlà however the location of the majority of that weight (in the batteries = 1,200#) is now in the keel, stiffening our sailboat for even better handling. Another advantage of our electric motor is fewer through-hulls: no need for water intake to cool the engine, exhaust waste, etc.

When switched to 60V mode, we have 400 amp/hours available for motoring. With calm seas and wind, Déjàlà (16,500 pounds, 35 feet) makes 3 knots at 20 amps, giving a theoretical range of 30 miles at 50% discharge. Pushing against current getting into Santa Rosalia, we burned 40 amps an hour to maintain 3 knots for 90 minutes. Our longest motor journey was entering San Diego by trying to stay out of the way of a submarine and under the guide of machine guns; about three hours at 3 knots.

In 985 hours under sail during our first year, we motored for 30 hours (around 3%) and much of this on what is known as the fickle Sea of Cortez during the summer (we sailed from Puerto Vallarta to Puerto Peñasco at the extreme north end of the Sea) – where we were told it was nearly impossible to do so. We saw as many if not more (in many cases) places than people using internal combustion. Overall we visited about 75 locations in a year or sailed 1 day out of every 4.5, the average being 1 day out of 7. We also averaged 3.4 knots per hour overall for nearly 3,500 nautical miles (some of the low average is due to the need to slow the boat down to arrive at dawn in new anchorages). As a point of reference, most cruisers run their engines at an average of 5 knots when motoring.

Many thought we were crazy. Many still think we are crazy. We entertained the thought ourselves (and sometimes still do) but persevered with the experiment and have gained much knowledge from it. The main thing we have learned is that since we have no way to ‘fight’ the elements, we have to befriend and listen to them. On a boat using wind and sun for power to travel and live, you learn to regard nature as an ally to be understood rather than a force to overcome. We have to be much more attentive to currents, tides, and winds than sailors who can just turn a key to bypass the situation or meet it head on.

What have we learned? Not being experienced sailors when we started a year ago: Quite a lot! Even with 1-2 knots of wind, it helps psychologically to keep the boat pointed in the right direction! Plus, when you get that huge 4 knot gust, it sends you in the right direction! Secondly, the wind WILL eventually return; when becalmed we use the Watermaker to top off the tanks, make cookies and bread, and catch up on reading and cleaning.

We’ve learned to not make promises/plans with a date or time of arrival. Every sail can become an overnighter. Open water is our friend. When leaving an anchorage, we always head away from land by the most direct route possible. Once the radar confirms a five mile distance, we breathe much easier. A saying we read somewhere: The Ocean is not dangerous, it’s the hard bits at the edges. Our sail track is not the most efficient, but feels much safer. We continually plan what ifs – if the wind dies…


Collecting photons


Déjàlà has a 500 watt solar panel array to turn photons into electrons to store in the battery bank. This is plenty to cover house loads: energy efficient refrigerator, Watermaker, LED or cold cathode lights, radio, computer, etc. However, to replace power used motoring is a slow process. Through the late spring, summer, and early fall the hours of daylight keep us full. The late fall and winter (especially with a few cloudy days) require periodic boosts with the gasoline generator. While having to run the Yamaha 2000 once every other week (rough average) through the winter is minute, we’d love to not run it at all.

We are currently experimenting using kayaks on a daily basis to replace the Zodiac dinghy with its gasoline outboard. Our goal is to have NO gasoline on board. We’ll not be fossil fuel free; propane is indispensible to our culinary arts (BBQ, stove, and oven). Our first year gasoline consumption was 20 gallons, with about 2/3 for the Zodiac outboard. We also shamelessly recharge and top off the batteries when at a marina (it’s like free fuel!). This is especially nice because we nearly always have to motor in and out of marinas.

What would we do differently? When it is time to replace our flooded wet cell battery bank, we’ll replace it with a smaller capacity sealed bank. Based on our year’s sailing, 200 amp/hour at 60V DC will be plenty, and still supply us with a 1,000 amp/hour house bank. Using hydrocaps has virtually eliminated monthly watering, but sealed batteries will allow more flexibility in installation. It never hurts to remove 500 pounds from the boat either! Also in the planning stage is a mechanical slide mount for the electric outboard. Currently we use a block and tackle to raise and lower the motor from its well. In rolly conditions this can be hazardous to fingers and bright work. After careful consideration, we’ve concluded the advantages of an outboard (no prop drag while sailing and stern thruster like action since the motor pivots on its axis) outweigh those of an inboard system.

We have seen one other electric sailing vessel, but at nearly 10 times the cost of installation using lithium ion batteries for relatively the same benefits and distance range, we feel good about our choice. Other interesting benefits are: no need to warm up the motor, no vibration, no smell, no oil changes, nearly no sound when running, no need for water intake, and only need to change one electric relay in six years of having the motor…

Cruising in this style is not for everyone – especially if they have SCHEDULES to keep. Many cruisers we meet in Mexico motor from marina to marina. A few will occasionally spend a night or two at a well known and proven anchorage (as long as it’s within dinghy distance of a palapa or internet!). Fewer still actually hoist the sails and spend time exploring Mexico. We have met an incredible group of sailors in the latter category who have been our mentors and heroes. If, like us, you endeavor to tread lightly on the earth, maybe this way of sailing on the water will appeal. For us, this is a natural conclusion of a lifestyle choice and it is freeing to not have to ‘plan’ your trips around fueling stations/marinas.

When you read of the most challenging part most cruisers experience when doing the “Puddle Jump” over to the South Pacific, they nearly all say they had to learn to sail in light wind – dare we say we’ve already learned some of those lessons…

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the updates. It is great following your adventure!

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