Electric Motor 4 Year Review

Wisdom was converted from Diesel to Electric in 2014 and it is about time we look at how electric propulsion has been for us.

We started off with the electric motor and no means of charging other than the regenerative feature of the motor. This worked well for daysailing or weekend trips where you never venture very far from a marina that you can plug in to. The little power that was burned up in getting out of the slip and marina was quickly recuperated when the sails filled and the boat started moving through the water with speed. When we approach 5 knots through the water, the force of the water pushing on our dragging propeller will cause it to spin and this will in turn spin your motor. Since the motor is being turned by the propeller, the motor will actually produce electricity and send it back to the batteries!

We then did a month long cruise, planning on generating all of our power needs with this handy feature of the electric motor. That was a mistake! Our fridge consumed so much power that the short and slow daysails we were doing were not able to feed it the amps it consumed!

When we got back from that trip, we quickly added solar panels to Wisdom, giving us the ability to produce electricity while at anchor. This was a major game changer, and with only 100W of panels, we were able to become free from the dock!

We now had the ability to motor a short distance, anchor for the weekend, and leave with a full charge. Due to space limitations, we were only able to squeeze 300W of panels into our array, but if we were able to carry more solar panels, we would be granted even more freedom.

In 2017, we released ourselves from the constraints of land and set off as full time cruisers with the electric motor. At this point, we only had a small solar array to feed our amp hungry fridge and the electric motor, and this was enough for us. We only used the motor for short bursts of power when anchoring or getting out of the way of another boat. While the solar panels did provide the bulk of the power we produced, some did come from the electric motor regenerating power on especially windy days when we zipped through the waves.

All was well until we got beat up in a storm off of Cape Hatteras and decided to head south for the winter inside the protection (pronounced "no wind") of the ICW. We knew we would never be able to motor the next 1000 miles to Florida with only a small solar array giving us charge, so we added a Honda 2000 generator. By running the generator, we could then run the battery charger and technically motor for as long as we had gasoline to burn!

Two things happened in this situation: 1. Our battery charger was very small and old. 2. Our charge controller started to die on us.

Lets start with the first part: Our battery charger was a gift from a friend who took it out of another boat because the owner wanted it replaced. The LEDs in the display had died, but otherwise it was still producing power, so we installed it and went cruising. The charger produces 15amps at 48vDC. 15 amps does make a fair amount of prop wash and will make all your docklines become taught if you try putting the motor in gear in the slip, but when you are out in the water, 15 amps is barely moving. We could do around 1 knot, but the current in the ICW is fierce, meaning we could go with the current or backwards (and still with the current). We then began running the generator all the time and only motoring when the tide and current were in our favor. When the current switched, we had to anchor to prevent moving backwards over ground.

This system was slow but it worked. We moved around 10 to 15 miles each day towards Florida from North Carolina by motoring along at around 20 to 30 amps, and then running the generator for the entire day to replenish everything that had been consumed. Then the problems started happening.

We were anchored in Oriental when the first controller died. We had been there for a week and decided it was time to raise anchor and move on, but the motor would not work. You would push or pull the throttle and there was no response from the motor. Since it is an electric motor, parts are not found at your local chandlery, so we had to wait two more weeks for the part to come in. With the new controller installed, the motor ran beautifully again and off we went!

Not too long later, the motor began switching between forward and reverse, and then not working at all! It turns out that the controller had died again!

Since the motor was new (I accidentally submerged our first electric motor in fresh water; the moral here is always disconnect your boat from the dock hose) the controller was covered under the warranty. The manufacturer was exceedingly helpful in trouble shooting, diagnosing over the phone, and mailing out the appropriate parts both times! This is really important because you probably won't find a skilled mechanic/electrician in some of the ports you wish to visit.

Maddie and I started analyzing what was going on here and what was killing the controllers. The manufacturer firmly believes that running the generator while motoring is fine to do because they are designed to be operated in this manner, but we wondered if something else might be wrong with our charger aside from dead LEDs! We decided to stop motoring with the generator on and see if the controller survives for longer than a few months.

This thought came to us because we had experienced many years of trouble free operation before the generator. We charged with the funky old charger when we were tied up in a marina, but the motor was never on at the same time! We started a new rule: The motor bank switch has to be off when the generator is turned on.

It has been around 7 months and an ocean crossing since we started that rule, and everything is working perfectly. I know that to really test out this theory, I need to reintroduce the variable and see if the problem replicates itself; but I don't want to kill our controller again, so I have never performed this part of a proper scientific examination.

Having the generator did give us the ability to navigate the ICW, but a generator is far from necessary for an electric propulsion yacht, as long as you plan to remain in open waters where you can sail.

In my personal opinion, if you plan on cruising the ICW and want to make bridge openings on a set schedule, a Diesel engine will be your friend and an electric motor will be a nightmare. Since we had no hurry and were willing to put up with the slow pace of progress, we trudged along the ICW from Hatteras, NC to Georgetown, SC. This little distance took us about 4 months, so very slow! Once we made it to Georgetown, we began coastal hopping down the East Coast and were free from the ICW. Here the electric motor shined like a star!

We would typically burn up about 20-30% of our battery bank in getting out of the harbor we were anchored, but all of this was regenerated by the time we made it to our next inlet. We had plenty of power to motor in (with the tide) and anchor. We would then crank on the generator to charge back what we consumed in getting there.

Having a generator was really handy for coastal hopping and mandatory for the ICW, but that is about where it's uses end for us.

We left Florida and sailed to the Bahamas where we were able to sail in and out of anchorages, as well as between the islands with ease. We used the motor for short spurts of power in some tricky areas, but the intense sun was able to charge the batteries back in about a week. The generator helped give us more power and sooner than a week; but it was not mandatory, only helpful.

When we left the Bahamas for the Azores, we carried 10 gallons of gasoline for the generator to help power us along the way. We had no wind and this voyage took 21 days to get to Bermuda, but we only ran the generator twice in our time at sea.

Foolishly, we purchased a third gas can and carried with us 15 gallons of gasoline when we left Bermuda for the Azores.

The winds were much more favorable and present, giving us the ability to sail the whole way across the ocean with considerable speed. On this voyage, we discovered that all of our solar panels had died of corrosion, meaning that our only two power sources were the generator and the motors regeneration to keep our fridge running.

The reason I say we foolishly carried 15 gallons of fuel is because we never needed to run the generator. The propeller spinning 24 hours a day provided us with so much power that we spent most of the journey at full charge!

In the open ocean, an electric motor is far superior to a Diesel engine. It will silently produce electricity all the time with no limitations of fuel capacities. When the winds are good, you will be sailing, and when the winds are not blowing, grab a book and wait for them to return! We crossed from Bermuda to the Azores in 24 days, with 4 days in a row where we were totally becalmed. The other 20 days had great winds that carried us over 100 miles per day and kept all the batteries charged.

An electric motor is not ideal for every situation, and not ideal for every sailor. If you have a tight schedule or want to move at a set minimum speed, you will be better off with a diesel motor. If you actually sail, and/or sail long distances, then an electric motor will be your new best friend.

We personally view our electric motor as a hydrogenerator that helps with docking and have never been happier with it!