Electric Yacht: Clean, Green, Quiet.
Product Review by Tony Green

Electric Yacht Components and Motor. What sailboat system generates more foul language than any other? Engines, right? Marine heads are second and electronics come in third, especially when owners throw the manuals away without reading them.
As much as we rely on our auxiliary engines, many of us hate them with a passion. The vast majority of sailboat engines are internal combustion outboards or inboard diesels, with a few inboard gas motors still around. What’s not to love? They can be hard to start and require a warm-up period, they are sometimes temperamental and stall at low speeds (usually when you need them most), both the fuel and exhaust are smelly and dangerous, the cooling systems can clog, maintenance and winterizing are not trivial and worst of all in the 21st century, they are powered by (gasp) fossil fuels.

For decades, our paradigm has demanded internal combustion engines to meet our needs on the road and on the water. Electric Yacht of Golden Valley, Minnesota, is out to change that way of thinking. The company’s electric propulsion systems offer a clean, green and quiet alternative to traditional sailboat auxiliaries for a large number of sailors. Chances are you’re one of them.

Electric Yacht was founded in 2007 by Scott McMillan, an electrical engineer and sailor who began tinkering with electric motors on his own boats. The company’s target market is the increasing number of sailboats with aging inboard engines that are in need of overhaul or replacement. Within that market are large subsets of lake sailors, racers, weekenders and coastal cruisers for whom a big diesel is serious overkill. Electric propulsion offers a simpler and more enjoyable option for the many boat owners who only use their engines for short distances to get in and out of the slip, ramp, mooring or anchorage.

The company’s electric motors mount to existing engine rails and propeller shafts. Multiple reduction ratio options accommodate different boat and propeller sizes and installation can easily be done with the boat in the water. Wiring connections are simple, with pre-fabricated cables provided to connect batteries, motor, throttle quadrant and battery monitor. An average conversion from inboard diesel to electric is weight and cost neutral compared with an engine rebuild, space is usually gained and your bilge will never smell like fuel again. List prices vary from $3,695 for a Model 100ib (48 VDC, 5 HP) to $5,495 for a Model 260ib (12HP @ 48VDC, 18HP @ 72VDC). Horsepower ratings between electric and internal combustion are not directly comparable, since electric motors do not have power siphoned off for engine-driven auxiliaries such as cooling pumps, fuel pump, alternator, etc. Typically, an electric system can replace a diesel or gas engine of twice the horsepower without a significant loss in top speed.

Freedom 32 Electric Yacht conversion boat. In addition to the Electric Yacht system, you will need batteries and a charger. The cost of eight flooded lead-acid batteries and a charger is about $1,500, while more advanced AGM batteries with charger are closer to $2,500. The motor and controller are basically maintenance free, although battery management and upkeep still apply. If AGM or lithium batteries are used, this can be reduced significantly. The company has more than 40 installations worldwide and can power sailboats up to 40 feet long.

Electric propulsion’s critics normally focus on two limitations: lack of power and range. Sure these systems are nifty, but can they punch through high winds, waves or currents and can they really drive the boat for more than a few hours? As I would learn, power is not a problem for Electric Yacht. But range is limited and there’s just no getting around the fact that battery technology, while improving, is the weak link. Traditional lead-acid batteries are the most affordable and are widely available. Lithium batteries are lighter and have increased life and range, but cost more. The company is optimistic that industry investments in hybrid and electric automobiles will provide much needed advancement in electrical storage for the boating market. These improvements will only increase the size of Electric Yacht’s target market, and most boaters should still be satisfied with today’s technology.

Overhead interior view showing driveshaft. Recharging the batteries is obviously important and options are numerous. For a boat in a marina slip, a traditional shore power charger is normally used. Boats at anchor or on a mooring typically use solar panels, wind generators or a combination of the two. To extend range indefinitely, owners can carry a portable gas generator or install a small diesel generator onboard, although purists might suggest that this is heading in the wrong direction. The Electric Yacht systems can also regenerate power to help charge the batteries. The boat’s motion under sail spins the propeller and shaft, turning the electric motor into a generator and putting current back into the batteries.

I met Scott McMillan, company President and Chief Engineer, and Bill Tomlinson, Director of Marketing, for a test sail on Lake Koronis in central Minnesota. This 3,000-acre, five-mile long lake is the perfect application for this technology. Scott’s Catalina 27 is kept on a mooring and the motor is used to get on and off the buoy and for sunset cruises and quiet puttering around the lake. The boat normally sits all week while a wind generator recharges the batteries and is more than ready for the next weekend. That use pattern describes a lot of sailboats out there, mine included.

There would be no puttering for our test run. The lake was whipped up by 15- knot winds with gusts over 20. We were shivering in the cold October rain and northeast wind, but I was secretly pleased to see how Electric Yacht’s equipment performed in a healthy breeze and chop. Scott got us underway with a turn of the key. There was no warm-up required and full power was instantly available, even at low speeds. A low hum let me know that the motor was on, and the tone changed with RPM, giving good feedback that the controller was responding. While not silent, it was much quieter than a diesel, and we easily carried on a conversation inside the cabin with the motor running. The Catalina effortlessly plowed through the building waves and hit hull speed with plenty of reserve. So much for the concern about being underpowered. Battery condition and discharge rate were visible at a glance and the cockpit monitor displayed amps and time left on the battery. At high speed the readout said we had 2.5 hours left, plenty of time to get off the five-mile lake in a hurry if we needed to. Backing off the throttle increased our time remaining and the monitor was instantly updated. Motoring at a couple of knots in a dead calm provides more than eight hours of run time on a full charge. When it was my turn to drive, I put the motor through its paces and Scott even let me dock his boat in the wind and waves to test maneuverability. The single-lever quadrant was similar to operating an inboard auxiliary, without the fear that the motor would stall if idled down in gear, as internal combustion engines can do.

I came away convinced that this technology is well designed, affordable, easy to install and more than capable to meet many sailors’ needs. Evaluating these systems requires an honest analysis of what type of sailing you really do. Long-distance voyagers will probably stick with fossil fuels, since they pack more power per pound than batteries. In my opinion, electric propulsion should be considered by the high number of sailors who day sail, race, weekend or coastal cruise within a few miles of shore and just don’t run their engines that much. The benefits are many. Instant on with no warm-up time. No more trips to the fuel dock. No oily bilges or fuel and exhaust fumes in the cabin and cockpit. Peaceful motor-sailing. Clean. Green. Quiet. Isn’t that what sailing is all about anyway?

More information, including specifications, pricing and customer testimonials are available on the company’s website at www.electricyacht.com

Tony Green has been boating since 1985, including eight years on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines. He currently teaches for Northern Breezes Sailing School and sails with his wife and two daughters on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, on the St. Croix River and on Lake Superior.