When I began sailing, the common belief was that seawater and electricity don’t mix. Every experienced sailor who wrote a book about cruising preached to not to bring electricity aboard. The early autopilots were viewed with skepticism as not being up to the task on a cruising boat, especially in the harsh environment of a sailboat. There was too much to go wrong, and electrical circuits and connections were quick to corrode into worthless junk. Everyone agreed that one only needed a Zenith Trans-Oceanic radio to supplement the navigation and weather forecasting on a well-found cruising boat. Leave everything else on the dock.
Hal Roth, Larry Pardey, and all the famous British sailors did without electricity or only the barest minimum.
Well, times have changed. And there are two lifestyles today where one sees a significant change in how electrical systems are embraced. One is boating. The other is enjoying the great outdoors in recreational vehicles. The RV industry has been furiously adapting to meet the demands of younger couples who want van life experiences over material accumulation. They want to go off grid, blend with the environment, and reduce their footprint. The don’t want big rigs, noise and emissions from generators, shore power, or resort RV parks. They want solar panels, lithium battery systems, and living with nature while minimizing pollution from fossil fuels. Even using propane for cooking is something to avoid.
Below: Many RV enthusiasts are using solar energy to power their electric kitchen and other components. (Image courtesy of RVUSA)
Companies like Winnebago have really stepped up to meet this market trend, so we have new RV models coming out that support a more minimalist experience, complete with 4x4 or AWD, induction cooktops, and basic living accommodations and everyday utility with contemporary interiors and low maintenance finishes and flooring. Gone are the recliners to make space for mountain bikes, kayaks, and hiking gear. These smaller adventure vehicles are more at home in the back woods and mountains that a developed campground. Ease of use, low impact, and low maintenance are important elements of the fun factor.
In boating we see similar trends happening in some areas of cruising, such as electricity replacing traditional fuel sources for cooking. And using alternative technology to keep the house batteries topped up rather than running a generator.
Most motoryachts are set up as all-electric boats because they mostly plug into shore power at luxury marinas. On the occasion when the crew chooses to anchor out, these yachts have a generator or two, and one runs 24/7 to take care of the HVAC demands, and to power full-size refrigerators and freezers, washer/dryer, stoves, and other appliances. Exceedingly well insulated, these generators are barely noticeable while providing all the comforts of the yachting lifestyle.
Large expedition yachts capable of cruising the world, such as those from Northern Marine, are really small ships, so it is a given they rely on a rack of generators to supply household power as well as for the mechanical systems, pumps, and other demands. But again, they are well engineered to be minimally invasive.
Seen below: The Northern Marine 80 has extended fuel capacity, watermakers, multiple generators, and redundancy for long-range cruising.
Our smaller, self sufficient trawlers and sailboats evolved differently. Cruisers often prefer quiet anchorages over marinas. While those doing the Great Loop will likely spend most nights at a dock, plugged into shore power, the rest of the time, we enjoy the ability to be free and on our own. So, builders add propane systems for cooking and a generator to recharge the house bank of lead acid batteries and run air conditioning if so equipped. On a smaller boat, a running generator is hard to hide.
When we built our custom Downeast cruiser with Steve Zimmerman, he talked us out of using electricity for cooking. He said who wants to start the generator in a quiet anchorage just to make coffee first thing in the morning?
However true that may have been in 2003, today more cruisers want to follow the same path as the boondocking van life crowd. Remain self sufficient, away from marina facilities and shore power, and be as environmentally clean as possible. And quiet.
The idea of an electric boat today, especially in a boat sized for a couple, is both doable and desirable. We still use diesel or gas to run the main propulsion engine(s), but eventually even that may change as we advance in alternative power technology.
I spoke with Patrick Tewes, owner of Marine Electric Systems in Annapolis. Patrick and his team will be one of our resources for electrical and electronic projects for Seattle Yachts in Annapolis. They have a stellar reputation, are fully ABYC certified, and their shop is next to our office in Eastport. Patrick told me they are doing a lot of lithium-ion battery systems these days, on all sorts of boats. He is especially pleased with the lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries made by Battle Born. They are less than half the weight of conventional lead acid batteries yet provide up to three times the power.
Seen below: The LiFePO4 Lithium battery bundle from Battle Born.
Lithium batteries also accept a much higher rate of charge during the recharging process, up to five times faster than standard deep cycle batteries. That is significant. We know that running the main engine at idle for long periods, so that the standard alternator can recharge lead acid house batteries, is bad for the engine. That is an irrelevant concern when using a high-output alternator to recharge a large bank of batteries capable of accepting a high rate of charge.
Nikki and Jason Wynns have a popular YouTube channel, and they are currently in the Pacific on their 43-foot Leopard sailing catamaran. Staying in Tonga for the typhoon season, she shared how they upgraded their galley, removing the original propane stove and oven, and went all electric. While this may seem sacrilegious to traditional cruisers, their approach is worth consideration.
Her dislike of propane has merit. It really heats up the cabin, never a good thing in the tropics, and efforts to ventilate the cabin space often blows out the flame, which becomes a safety issue. But the bigger problem is about using propane outside of North America. Every country seems to use a different adapter to refill propane tanks, and refilling stations are few and far between. In some cruising areas, such as French Polynesia, propane is nowhere to be found as the residents use butane.
They set up their catamaran with lithium-ion batteries, four 300Ah batteries for a total of 1200Ah. They installed 1400 watts of solar panels on top of the cabin and arch. The boat has a generator, but it uses too much of their precious fuel supply and ongoing maintenance is tiresome. A sailing cat does not carry a lot of diesel fuel, and it is not easy to resupply when cruising island groups. The couple may eventually remove the generator and increase the number of solar panels…and batteries.
I find their choices for an electric galley interesting. They use a portable one-burner induction cooktop, which runs off the inverter, the same unit provided in some of the new, smaller RVs. They also have a portable electric griddle, which is great for cooking all sorts of food, from eggs to veggies, fish, and steaks, and can be moved into the cockpit if the weather is nice.
The third addition is a Breville Smart Oven, essentially a high-quality toaster oven, robust enough to cook a chicken. Each of these units draws 1800 watts and runs off the inverter. They complement other onboard electric galley appliances: bread machine, kettle, yogurt maker, and ice cream machine. And the whole lot costs less than a high-end propane stove/oven and can be stowed away when not in use.
Seen below: The Breville Smart Oven can be found online for under $300.
Back to Steve Zimmerman’s concerns, I could make coffee without starting a generator, and without using propane. And not wake up the anchorage in the early dawn.
An electric galley represents a slick solution for couples on trawlers and sailboats cruising North America. While not all cruising boats have the real estate for a large solar array, we can fit what we can and then rely on our main engine to recharge the batteries using an additional high-output alternator and separate regulator. Designed as a system, these components would eliminate the need for an AC generator to charge the batteries.
Many electric appliances are more efficient and take less time. An induction cooktop will boil water, for example, in less time than a pot of water on a propane burner and without the heat. I use a 1500-watt electric kettle every day to boil water for tea and coffee and it takes considerably less time to heat water than a teapot on my home electric range.
Balmar is a well-known manufacturer of high output alternators and offers models and installation kits for most propulsion engines in our kinds of boats.
Today it is even possible to run air conditioning off the lithium banks, depending on the sizes of the unit and battery bank. With soft start functions, and products like Micro Air’s Easy Start, it is possible to run a good-sized air conditioner off a normal inverter without taxing the system, and then cool off the boat (and reduce humidity) for as many hours as the batteries will allow. Who would have imagined that even a few years ago?
I think of my past cruising boats and wonder how much simpler it would have been to not have propane or generator, and all the accessory components, wires, hoses, control panels, and alarms.
It would be interesting to put together a new Nordic Tug, or any smaller cruising boat, power or sail, without a generator or propane system, and install a high output alternator and as many lithium batteries as will reasonably fit both space and budget. That would result in two less systems to take care of, both of which are somewhat high maintenance in my experience. I have replaced more propane electrical components than I care to remember, and the fittings and hose connections tend to corrode in the damp marine environment inside a propane locker.
The investment in renovating an older trawler to a modern electrical system would prove to be more reliable and trouble free. And remove two systems that are guaranteed to require ongoing maintenance. I would prefer to be out cruising rather than stuck somewhere fixing a cranky old genset and ever-corroding propane system for the umpteenth time.
As far as air conditioning is concerned, having the ability to run it for two or three hours would often be enough to cool down the interior. And, in my experience, if air conditioning is needed 24/7, I will be tied up in a marina, plugged into shore power anyway.
I really like the idea of silent, efficient, off-grid living, tucked in a cove somewhere with nothing but the sounds of nature to disturb the silence.
Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore:
- Consider Buddy Boating
- A Matter Of Staying Safe While Boating
- Should I Carry A Gun While Cruising?
- A Boater's 3-to-5 Year Plan
- Learning To Handle A New Boat
- What's The Best Cruising Boat?
- Boat Tools: A 4-Part Series
- Provisioning Your Yacht For Extended Cruising - Bahamas
- Provisioning Your Yacht For Extended Cruising - Alaska
- The Evolution Of The Trawler Yacht
- The Vital Yacht Broker