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Introduction to Electric

What do you do when you when your old engine needs repair or lets you down at the worst possible moment. Haven't we figured out a more modern, quite, clean, reliable alternative yet to gas or diesel? Electric cars seem to be arriving on the scene. Why not an electric motor for the boat? So a journey to convert our 1974 C&C 35 sailboat from noisy and unreliable gas power auxiliary engine into a smooth and efficient electric began.

Going Electric

Engine trouble

A few years ago we bought a 1974 C&C 35. This beautiful sailboat came complete with the infamous original old Atomic 4 gasoline engine as auxiliary. A number of people had told me this was a converted old tractor motor that could be relied upon most of the time and with some regular maintenance that included regularly replacing quite a number of the parts, most of which can still be found, often used, and could still be operated quite successfully. We'd just bought the boat and were learning to sail. We'd completed the beginner and intermediate cruising courses, and were looking forward to getting out on the lake to enjoy our new sailboat.

Below is a picture of our beautiful Initram. She is a champion racer in decades gone by. She has aged well with here beautifully maintained fiberglass hull still in excellent condition. Some of the wood work especially around the hatch was starting to rot but could easily be replaced. The boat survey suggested that we must replace all the electrical wiring to bring it up to current code. Many a QCYC (Queen City Yacht Club) member suggested she was an excellent sailboat and longed to see her back out on the water after several years or more on the dry dock.


As you might expect, the boat having been on the dry dock for a few years, the Atomic 4 wasn't about to get us off the dock right away. So we poured a seven hundred dollars into getting it ready. The day after these repairs we tried to start things up ourselves with only a minute or two of black smoke as the result. The motor simply did not like to remain running for more than a few minutes. We made several attempts to learn the complexities of a gasoline engine system ourselves, enlisting fellow sailing experts help, working through the process of checking the pumps that meant gasoline spraying all over ourselves, and much of the bilge, before we began to think about giving up on this old favorite gasoline engine. A new motor seemed like a better idea for us novice boaters and even more novice engine operators. A new diesel might be nice as we've been told they are quite reliable, and relatively easy to operate. Still, the thought of dealing with the complexities of an internal combustion engine of any kind, carting fuel over, preparing for winter/spring by draining out the oil and gas, replacing filters, checking electrical systems, monitoring water cooling system etc. all still seemed like a lot of things we weren't interested in at all. We simply wanted to sail, not become power boat operators. What about an electric motor?

Finding an electric motor system

A number of mechanics and sailors thought we were crazy as nobody seemed to know anyone else who had done the conversion to electric engine. Of all the places, QCYC, our yacht club, does turn out to have one of the few experts with electric/battery powered boats, in form of Paul Olsen. For many years Paul has operated both his boat and his home on electric power stored in lead acid batteries. We had not fully gotten to know Paul at this point, and I think Paul wanted to see how we'd fair at this rather adventurous direction.

So, we began to further investigate what might be possible on our own. Would it have enough power? Wouldn't you run out of battery juice? Wouldn't it weigh too much? I should mention that this seems a little less crazy to me than perhaps most people as I live in a "eco" house that has grass growing on the roof (free air conditioner), solar panels covering the south side (earning me profits on the Ontario MicroFIT program that pays 80.2 cents per kilowatt hour), a ten year old wind turbine, and some ten year old deep cycle lead acid batteries in the basement. We actually generate more electricity than we consume in the house most of the time and it seemed to me we ought to be able to make the switch to electric on the boat for the hour or two max that we ever use the motor going in and out of the dock on most of our outings. Certainly for Wednesday race nights, electric seems like a far simpler, quicker, quieter and more reliable way to quickly get out on the race course. After building our amazing eco-house, my next dream was to sail around the world on a catamaran using only the power of the wind and renewable energy. Here was a chance to starting learning how we might deal with the motor on such a journey.

So, after a some Google searching we found Electric Yacht ( ), run by Bill and Scott down in the Minnesota, in the United States. A run through their conversion stories and YouTube videos convinced me that we could do this. If a guy in Malaysia , at the RLYC (Royal Langkawi Yacht Club) can order the system, get it hooked up and say it works well, then surely we could do this, close as we are to Minnesota where Electric Yacht assembles and ships their system. So, we talked to a few boat mechanics, most of whom were less than interested, and then found Lorne Spence who at the time was work for Genco and who was young eager to try to make this kind of new challenge work. Lorne has done of number of innovated things with solar power integration on boats for charging batteries. Here was a chance to go a step farther towards integrating renewable energy with the main propulsion system.

An email to Electric Yacht results in a request for specifics regarding your boat. What type of motor do you currently have (to determine mounting configuration and shaft alignment)? What are the dimensions...length, beam, depth, LOL, LOA, LALALA etc?

For conversion to pure electric (as apposed to a hybrid where you combine electric with a diesel for instance), there are three basic size configurations. The smallest motor offered works for boats up to approximately 30 feet (Electric Yacht model QuieTorq ibl100, 3.5 kW). Up to 40 feet the medium size motor is usually sufficient in terms of power (Electric Yacht model QuieTorq ibl180, 6.9 kW). Finally, for over 40+ you can try the largest motor (Electric Yacht model QuieTorq ibl360, 13.6 kW). The challenge is getting a motor sufficiently powerful enough to get your boat up to 6 knots while being small enough to be efficient in the use of your battery stored electricity.

So, we ordered the 6.5 kW brushless electric motor (sized by Bill and Scott based on some of the boats dimensions). The electric motor system, which we were assured is flexible enough to fit in the same location and mount where the Atomic was, came with everything we need including a monitor system (percent charge remaining, hours remaining at the current speed, volts, amps, rpms etc), a throttle, power controller and the motor.

Replacing electric for combustion engine

The only other parts we needed to buy were some deep cycle batteries, heavy gauge wire and a charge controller for the deep cycle batteries. So, we all did some research and then went with the Odyssey AGM (absorbed glass matt) sealed batteries that Bill and Scott recommended combined with an Analytic charge controller that Lorne thought would suit our needs the best (military grade, sealed to prevent getting wet). The AGM batteries seemed like the best option for us as they don't require any maintenance as might be required for flooded lead acid batteries which might be a little less expensive. On the more expensive end of things, Lithium batters might make sense as they can be recharged 3000 times (as apposed to 500 for lead acid and AGM). However, the premium in terms of cost is approximately three times that of AGM making the up-front cost too much for us at this point in time.


The four large, rack mountable Odyssey model 1800 batteries we ordered each cost about $700 and weighed in at about 130 pounds each, giving us the required 48 volts DC required of the motor. The four batteries were wired in series to get us to 48 volts from the individual batteries 12 volts. Remaining below 50 volts as a system is worthwhile as the electrical code requirements are more reasonable. Above fifty, at 72 volts which the motor can operate at, you are into an electrical code for boats that could be significantly more costly. When all the new components, motor, and battery were combined we figure it weighs about the same as the Atomic 4 with a full tank of gas (maybe about 20 pounds lighter). All the new equipment including batteries would also fit nicely where the old motor and gas tank were removed retaining the same weight and balance in the boat.


Once everything had arrived Lorne followed the installation manual, and made a few calls to Bill and Scott, to get everything wired up, aligned and ready. At the same time Lorne re-wired the entire boat as per the requirements of the boat survey. Lorne had to design a solid wooden box system to hold the batteries in place. We (mainly Leigh my wife, who is an angel) cleaned out all of the old gasoline and oil gunk. Once fully cleaned out my dad Ian Wilson painted the engine compartment white in preparation for our new clean and green electric motor system. Removing the motor while the boat was in the water was quite a process. Thankfully, with Lorne directing things, and with the help of fellow QCYC member Paul Horne, we were able to use the club crane to remove the old Atomic 4 motor.

Once the old motor was removed Lorne was able to mount the electric motor, align it with the propellor shaft, use the Electric Yacht provided propellor shaft connector, and getting everything connected and ready for operation. Finally the big day had arrived and we took her out (Initram is the name of our C&C sailboat) for a trial run. All systems worked flawlessly...better than expected. Simply push backward and she reverses out of her slip, quietly, with the simple hum of the electric motor. Out on the water in forward we take her slowly up to 2000 rpm. We get up to about 5 knots and all systems are looking great. It is a beautiful thing to be able to talk to each other easily as the motor operates so quietly. In addition their are no gas fumes billowing up as we back out to choke us.

Around the Toronto Harbour we motor, enjoying the ability to talk to each other as we move around (so nice not to be yelling over the sound of the gasoline engine). At about 80% of the rpm max the Electric Yacht control monitor system says we've got about six hours of run time. At full throttle the system suggests we have about two hours of run time. She can get up to about 6 knots with the current propellor (a racing prop that feathers the blades back to reduce drag...not the best for extracting all the power available from the electric motor...we plan to try a fixed proper next year).

We've now been out many times and always seem to come back with essentially 100% charge remaining. For most of our sailing we take her out of the slip and once out in the harbour we put the sails up. Same thing coming back in so we had not really used much of the juice in the batteries on any outing. Finally, we decided to make a more substantial trip, going from Toronto to Port Credit. 

On this day we had some strong winds out of the north. We motored for about twenty minutes across the harbour to pick some people up. We then motored for another ten minutes in the harbour putting the sails up. Off to Port Credit we sailed. We enjoyed some good sailing speeds up to 9 knots while riding some big ten foot waves.

Once we'd arrived in Port Credit (my first time sailing to a destination and my first time going to Port Credit), we were unlucky enough to have to surf in on those big breakers (or lucky depending on your perspective). The adrenaline was pumping as we rode a big one in and behind the break wall. Once fairly close to the wall, in the deeper part of the port I thought we were safe. Not on this day. The waves were still going up and down about six feet from top of the crest to the bottom of the wave. As we thought we were getting close to the public docks we were startled to realize we had become stuck on the bottom as we dropped down in the trough of a wave. As the next wave raised us up we were able to move again but this was not good. I immediately began to worry about the new motor and how the heck we were ever going to get out of this mess.

Reverse, someone said. Yes, don't fight it, let us back our way out of here. Full reverse on the new electric. Two thousand rpm...and nothing. Then a wave picked us up a bit and we started moving backwards. The next wave the same thing. Finally on the third wave I was able to have full control of the boat in reverse, full power. What a relief as each wave seemed to nudge the back end closer to the concrete pier. So I kept her on full throttle for about five minutes taking us back into the bigger waves wondering all the time, would she have enough power to keep us out of the break wall. She did and then some. We got tucked in behind Port Credit Marina break wall and finally I switched her back to full forward going to the right into the Port Credit Harbour Marina. We found an open slip and took about half an hour to catch our breath and come down from the twenty minute adrenaline rush.

Now it was time to get back on the horse and get back out into those big waves. We'd used a lot more power from the batteries than I had ever expected to. Still, the monitor still indicated we had about 90% remaining battery power. So, we put the nose back into the big waves and started motoring back directly into them, heading for Toronto. It being a new system, and not know exactly how much more power we would need to overcome the large waves, I did wonder if we'd be able to make any headway. Would she have enough power to make way against those waves and the strong wind coming against us? She sure did. We made some good progress out into the lake and got the sails up going directly into those ten foot waves with a heavy 20+ knot wind. Heading out might have take us approximately ten minutes on the motor before we got the sails up.

Approaching Toronto we decided to motor through the western gap and across the harbour instead of sailing for another hour or so to get to the eastern gap where the QCYC entrance is as the sun was starting to set. We motored through the western gap and across the harbour as the sun set at about 80% power remaining according to the cockpit motor, moving nicely at around 4 knots. We had about 69% battery remaining when we got back to the dock. We packed everything away and I plugged in the batteries so they'd be ready for another fun filled day of sailing.

Electric motors for sailboats have arrived. Just think how much sense it makes. A gasoline engine has an electric motor, batteries for that starter electric motor, spark plugs, pumps, cooling systems, and who knows what else. With electrics, you are down to one of those basic systems...a large version of the gasolines electric starter motor. Talk about making things easier and simple to understand, never mind reliable. Add to that the ease of maintenance, ease of fueling (just plug her in), and ease of use. The more time we spend with the electric the more I have no doubt that this is the future of boating.


Electric is less expensive and it is more reliable than diesel. Your nose and ears will notice a difference.

  • You will clean your bilge one more time – then occasionally dust it.
  • A new hobby will be needed to fill all those diesel maintenance and repair hours.
  • Pure Electric Propulsion Systems for boats have many, significant advantages over conventional engines
  • Clean – No emissions, No mess, No smell
  • Green – Can use renewable recharging sources:
    wind, solar, re-generation
  • Quiet – Nearly silent, even when you're not sailing
  • Very environmentally friendly, even using shore power
  • Reliable, no warm-up – just like flipping a light switch
  • Lower initial cost, minimal on-going maintenance
  • Never buy fossil fuels again!
  • Power without noise, smoke and smell is possible

Electric propulsion system

Main components of the system are electric motor, controller, monitor, batteries and charge controller. Additional components that may be included are solar/wind and/or generator for recharging batteries while underway.

Electric motor

Various sizes available from 3 kW+, brushless seems to be the norm these days.


Electronic controller to manage flow of electricity between batteries and the electric motor.


LED display for the cockpit that shows key controller fed data including: RPMs, volts, amps, percent charge remaining, hours remaining at current speed (electricity usage)


Lead acid are the most obvious low cost choice. Flooded, AGM are available from many source, can handle approximately 500 discharges to 80%. Lithium based batteries are lower weight and can handle up 3000 discharges. Cost more up front.

Charge controller

Device for managing the shore power AC input for charging the DC batteries at 48 volts.


Lead Acid Batteries
  • Lead acid deep cycle batteries most common
  • 48V string consisting of 8 flooded T-105 size batteries most popular
  • AGM provides better deep cycle performance and does not require watering
  • Gel have longest life in deep cycle application, but have higher internal impedance than AGM
  • TPPL (Odyssey brand) promise longer life and have better charge acceptance
  • Everyday use should not exceed 50% DOD
Lithium (LiFePO4) Batteries
  • Most stable chemistry of the Lithium types
  • Do not suffer thermal runaway leading to fire
  • Last much longer than lead acid or other Lithium types
  • Damage by overcharging or over discharging
  • Charge voltage not to exceed 4.25V / cell
  • Do not discharge below 2.5V
  • Battery Management System (BMS) needed to insure individual cells are not over charged or discharged
  • Excellent charge acceptance allows for rapid recharge
  • Must use smart charger
  • Prices coming down, cheaper than lead acid on a charge/discharge cycle basis
Charging Batteries
  • Shore power chargers used on most systems
  • May be plugged into shore
  • May be plugged into a small portable generator
  • Diesel powered dc generator
  • Wind generator
  • Solar panels
  • Regeneration from turning prop.
Batteries are the key
  • The only disadvantage: battery bank size determines range on pure electric systems
  • Lead-acid are still heavy
  • New battery technology is solving this issue, but expensive
  • $ Billions in research money is being spent by military, utilility and auto industry
  • LiFePO4 are available and prices are coming down
  • Hybrid systems overcome the range issue
Future of batteries
  • EP is expected to gain mainstream acceptance as battery technology improves
  • LiFePO4 are becoming cost effective
  • Fuel cells, ultra capacitors and newer battery technologies will drive mainstream acceptance


Our first two week cruise around Lake Ontario took us to Bronte via Oakville. This video clip shows us quietly heading out of Bronte harbor on a beautiful sunny day in the summer of 2011.

Video of our first cruise from Toronto to Port Dalhousie on Lake Ontario. Video is embedded in iBooks on iPhone and iPad in the ePub file. To view from PDF file or to see the video you YouTube -


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