Q&A: Writer and marine systems expert Nigel Calder talks about hybrid boats, green technology and why that extra knot of speed is a bad idea

Nigel Calder


Nigel Calder has long been known to boaters as an expert on marine systems and diesel engines. His “Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual” and “Marine Diesel Engines” books are considered the definitive works in their fields. More recently, the world-renowned sailor and writer, who lives in Maine, has been leading the charge to adapt automotive hybrid technology for boats. With a $3-million grant from the European Union, Calder assembled a team of industry experts and in May of this year launched the
Hybrid Marine (HYMAR) project, a three-year initiative focused on refining marine systems. Three Sheets caught up with the 61-year-old Calder in Port Townsend, where he’s speaking at this weekend’s annual Wooden Boat Festival.

Is a festival about traditional boats a good venue to talk about new technologies in boating?
There’s a presumption that hybrid boats are more efficient and better from a conservation perspective, which isn’t necessarily true. But I think the two do fit together quite well. Also, the Northwest is like the Northeast in that it has quite a lot of idiosyncratic boat builders and owners who are willing to step a little outside of the box. You don’t see a lot of mass-produced factory boats up here. These people are very interested in new technologies and they’re willing to give them a try, even though they realize there are going to be teething problems.

Can you tell me about the work the HYMAR team is doing?
Right now, we’re collecting a lot of baseline data on a conventional system. I have the test boat (a Malo 46) and we equipped it with about $60,000, $70,000 worth of test gear. We’ve got a torque meter on the propeller shaft and it also measures the RPM of the shaft. With torque and RPM, you can calculate how much energy the propeller is using. We also have a very accurate fuel measurement system, so now we have the power the propeller is using and the engine’s fuel consumption. With those two things, we can measure the power the boat is actually using, compare it to a model of the boat’s performance and make deductions about engine efficiency and propeller efficiency.

We’ve now got a database that’s unique in the world in terms of the depth of information we’ve got on the conventional system. I spent two or three years studying fuel efficiency issues with diesel engines and with this database I now know how to make a hybrid propulsion system more efficient than a conventional system. It’s no longer a question of whether we can do it. I know we can. It’s now a question of how much more efficient we can make it. We’ll be able to put more numbers on that in upcoming months.

Initially, I was a skeptic of this whole project. I thought that at the end of the day, hybrid systems on boats weren’t going to be cost effective or worthwhile. I’ve already realized that we can really make it quite cost effective in a lot of situations.

None of the current electric systems (used for boats) are very well-optimized. The vast majority of them are really no more efficient, or are even less efficient, than a regular diesel engine. It’s a real challenge to make this technology more efficient in a boat as opposed to a car. In a car, every time you stop at a traffic light you can shut your engine off. Every time you go down a hill or use your brakes, you can recover that energy. You can’t do any of that in a boat.

If you were initially a skeptic, why did you embark on this project?
I kept getting these emails from people who wanted to do it. There’s this pent-up demand for hybrid systems. I wanted to see if it was justified or not. There’s a presumption that it just has to be better. But when I started out, I thought it would be hard to make it better. This whole project was about seeing if that really was the end of the story, or if looking at this in depth, we could find a way to make it look good. That’s effectively what we’ve done. I think we can make it live up to people’s expectations.

How will the system developed by the HYMAR team be better than existing electric systems?
To optimize the systems, you’ve got to bring together a large number of skill sets—expertise in electric propulsion, diesel engines, propellers, control systems … The car industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and can afford to put together teams to work on this. In the boat world, even with the big boat manufacturers, it’s a fairly cottage industry. Nobody has that kind of money or resources. You’ve got people who understand one part of the system and can put that part of the system together, but don’t understand the other parts of the system.

With the European Union funding, we’ve been able to put a team together that understands all the parts of the system. That’s what sets us apart from everybody else. It’s having a dozen different experts under one roof.

How many boats are currently using hybrid technology?
For the size of boat we’re looking at, 30 feet and up, I don’t suppose that there are more than a couple hundred in the whole world. There are quite a lot of small launches with electric motors in them, but none of them have worked that well. They require a lot of user intervention to manage them properly. What we have to do is get to systems where the complexity is all hidden from the user and they key decision-making is done by the system and not the user.

You need very expensive battery packs in these boats. They can run from a couple of thousand dollars to a hundred thousand. You’re looking at probably a five-thousand-dollar battery pack if you’re using conventional technology, and twenty to thirty thousand if you’re using lithium batteries. But if you do an analysis of the energy you get out of a battery during its lifetime, twenty- or thirty-thousand-dollar battery packs are cheaper per unit of energy, because you get so much more life out of them. That’s a calculation, to my knowledge, that nobody’s ever bothered to make.

How soon do you think we’ll start seeing more hybrid boats on the market?
The end of 2011 would be my guess. I think we’ll have prototype systems by this time next year. Things are moving a lot quicker than I expected. This summer, we got some terrific insights into some of the key pieces of the system in a level of detail that we weren’t able to before. I’m tickled to death with the way it’s going.

If a boat builder comes in and makes a commitment, that will accelerate the pace of development and encourage other manufacturers to move faster. In that case, I think we could see working systems by this time next year. If we don’t get that level of commitment, I think it’ll be more like two to three years.

What is the market like for hybrid boats?
If we had the equipment today and the systems were proven, we’d have a market for several hundred units a year quite quickly. I think in the longer term, you’re looking at (a market of) somewhere in the low thousands. This isn’t like the car industry. The worldwide market for sailboats over 30 feet is probably under 15,000 a year. If we can take 20 percent of that market, we’ll be doing okay.

When we look at traditional ways of making boats, what lessons can we draw on to create more environmentally-friendly vessels?
Particularly in the powerboat world, traditional powerboats were long and skinny and very fuel-efficient because they didn’t get driven up onto a plane. You didn’t see these tubs that required 400 horsepower to get moving. You have to give up the idea that you’re going to do 30 knots. You can’t do 30 knots without burning gallons of fuel.

To go from 6 to 7 knots doubles the fuel consumption. To go from 7 to 8 knots doubles it again. To go from 8 to 8 and a half knots doubles it again. That last knot of boat speed is more than doubling the fuel consumption. If most boat owners had a miles-per-gallon meter at the helm, they would be totally shocked at what that last knot of boat speed was costing them.

What are the most promising new technologies you see coming down the pike?
Batteries. It’s batteries that are making hybrid technology viable. We have the same challenge as the car industry. If you want to have electric propulsion, you’ve got to have energy storage capacity. And existing lead acid batteries just won’t handle it. So we have to have new battery technology.

Lithium batteries are going to be integral to so many parts of modern life. These batteries have phenomenal performance characteristics. They enable us to radically redesign the energy systems on boats. I’ve been tracking boat systems for over 25 years, full time and professionally, and to my mind they’re about the most important development in the years I’ve been looking at this stuff.

What are the biggest barriers to those technologies being widely integrated?
Again, it’s the fact that the boat industry is a cottage industry. It takes a long time for information and technology to get disseminated. It’s very hard to get new technology implemented in a timely fashion. And then the boatyard themselves, very few of them can afford to have professional engineering staff. We don’t have the mechanisms for educating people and training them, and we don’t pay our people enough anyway. So we get people who are committed because they like the technology, but we don’t attract people into the industry because it doesn’t pay well. The technology levels in boatyards are pretty low compared with the automotive industry.

Is Europe more receptive to green technology than the U.S.?
They’re definitely more receptive. Europeans in general have been much more concerned about these issues for a long time, with the whole Kyoto Protocol and so on. I think we’re going to catch them up pretty quickly with the whole change of the Obama administration and the U.S. getting involved with the Kyoto discussions and so on.

But at the moment, the Europeans are definitely more conscious of these issues. That’s why we got this money from the European Union. We applied in the States for $4 million in stimulus funding (to refine hybrid technology for boats), but we were turned down.

Will hybrid technologies make it more expensive and difficult for people to get into boating?
It will make it more expensive initially, but it’ll make it cheaper in the long run because the systems themselves are much more efficient. And also, because we can install a hybrid system with a diesel engine on the boat—you’ll still need a diesel engine to drive a generator—it’ll run way less power than it normally would. So what you effectively do is amortize the cost of that engine over a much longer time period. With most modern boats, the hulls have outlasted the machinery. During the life of a boat you end up replacing the engine once or twice, whereas in the days of wooden boats the machinery typically outlasted the hull. So now that the machinery gets replaced during the life of the boat, the amortization cost of the machinery becomes a factor in the total cost of the boat over time. If you look at that, and you look at the energy savings over the long run, these boats will be cheaper, though the up-front costs will be higher.

What are some things boaters can do today for little cost that will help reduce their environmental impact?
The number one thing they can do is to slow down by a knot when they’re under power. It’ll cut their fuel consumption in half. And with any engine, the time when it’s at its most pull is when it’s idling and it’s not warmed up. Get on the boat, start the engine and get off the dock. Don’t spend half an hour fiddling with the sails or whatever.

Other than that, we’re a pretty clean industry, particularly on the sailboat side. On the powerboat side, the reality is that those engines are pretty polluting. There’s not been the same pressure on the marine side for engines to clean up emissions as there’s been on the automotive side. But that’s changing. The EPA is starting to apply the same rigorous emissions standards to the boating world as to the automotive world.

Have you found boaters more willing or less willing to adopt green technologies, compared with the general public?
The whole ethos of the sailing community tends toward environmental consciousness, even though the majority of sailboats these days spend more time under power than under sail. The idea of sailing—the energy, the wind—attracts people with more of an environmental ethic. I’m not so sure of powerboaters. There’s an element of powerboaters that is interested in exactly the opposite, which is to have a huge, gas-guzzling boat, open the throttles and blast off as fast as you can go. It’s a much different picture, I think, when you look at the powerboating community.

Where’s your favorite place to sail?
I’ve got two or three favorites. There’s an area in the Bahamas where I just spent a week called the Exumas, which is delightful. I like some of the West Indies. And in the summertime, if it’s not foggy, Maine is lovely. The west coast of Sweden, where we’ve got the boat now, is gorgeous if the weather is nice. But that’s a big if. It’s raining most of the time.

Are you related to Nigel Calder, the British science writer and global warming skeptic?
No. I wish I got his royalty checks. (Laughs) But it hasn’t done me any harm. Whenever anybody Googles my name he comes up. People think I’m a genius.

Nigel Calder is speaking at the Wooden Boat Festival at 6 p.m. Friday on battery breakthroughs, at 6 p.m. Saturday on anchoring and kedging off, and at 1 p.m. Sunday on do-it-yourself diesel engine maintenance and surveying. Complete information is available on the festival website.

3 Responses to Q&A: Writer and marine systems expert Nigel Calder talks about hybrid boats, green technology and why that extra knot of speed is a bad idea

  1. Brent Roraback September 15, 2009 at 8:26 pm #

    Great interview. We rented one of the Duffy electric boats down on Lake Union last weekend. They’re not going to win any races but they’re a ton of fun for puttering around. NYTimes had an interesting article a couple years back on a similar subject (optimizing boat design for fuel efficiency, etc.) focusing on a team in California trying to come up with efficient sail and fishing boats. Wonder where they are with that now?

  2. Phil Hutchinson September 11, 2009 at 6:07 pm #

    What a great interview! Thanks a ton, Deborah.

    • Profile photo of Deborah Bach
      Deborah Bach September 13, 2009 at 2:34 pm #

      You’re very welcome! Thanks for the feedback. Glad you enjoyed it. It was a fun interview to do.

Leave a Reply

Skol!