Meet Nigel Calder. A man from the south of England with a degree in philosophy. A man who’s obsession with the sea started with skipping a sports day to sail a dinghy in a flooded gravel pit. A man who had to unashamedly bribe his way into his first job on an oil rig.
Decades later, he is also a man who is considered THE boat technician guru and the author of ‘The Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual’ and ‘Marine Diesel Engines’. A man who took some big risks but was determined to make his nautical dream a reality.
This week on the SHIPSHAPE podcast, we talk with Mr. Calder, now located in Maine, about how he went from wrecking his brother’s boat in the North Sea to the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and finally, into a publishers office. The knock-on effect of which was being brought on board with the American Boat and Yacht Council to catalog knowledge that met their standards. Join us as we discuss where the industry came from, where it treads water now and, more importantly, what bearing it’s on heading into the future.
Nigel Calder, a well-known marine journalist, author, and sailor has made significant contributions to the boating industry over the course of his career. His work has helped to shape the modern boating landscape and has influenced the direction of the industry for many years.
One of the key ways in which Calder has changed boating is through his writing and research. He has written extensively about a wide range of marine-related topics, including boat design, maintenance, and repair, navigation, and seamanship. His books and articles have helped to educate and inform sailors and boat owners around the world, providing them with the knowledge and skills they need to maintain and operate their boats safely and effectively. If you look in your library that came with the boat you purchased, one of his books is likely there.
Calder is also known for his work in promoting the use of alternative energy sources in the boating industry. He has been an advocate for the use of solar power, wind power, and other forms of renewable energy on boats, and has written extensively about these topics. He is one of the principles to the group OceanPlanet Energy a group that works specifically with green and efficient electrical systems. Through his work, he has helped to raise awareness of the environmental benefits of using alternative energy sources and has encouraged the adoption of these technologies by boaters.
Brought to you by SHIPSHAPE
Farah [00:00:09] Hello and welcome to the Shipshape Podcast, a series of podcasts where we meet amazing people and talk about their experiences, personal, technical and all related to the maritime world. Come and dive in. Dive in, Dive in.
Merrill [00:00:42] Today on the Shipshape podcast, we have Nigel Calder, boat tech guru, author of Marine Diesel Engines, Nigel’s Cruising Handbook and Boat Owners Mechanical and Electrical Manual to just to name a few. Today’s hosts are Merrill Charette a liveaboard on a Ta-Shing Tashiba 36 and T.
Talha [00:01:02] I am aboard my powerboat a 40 foot Luhrs. And honestly, it’s such a pleasure to have Nigel on the show with us because this guy is the first book to have a boat. When I got on a boat like 1012 years ago as just that book. And so such a pleasure to have you on the show. Nigel Welcome.
Merrill [00:01:22] So, Nigel, where are you recording this from?
Nigel [00:01:25] I’m at home in Maine, MidCoast, Maine, looking out on the Damariscotta River.
Merrill [00:01:30] What town are you in in Maine?
Nigel [00:01:32] Well, I was actually at Newcastle, but most people know it as Damariscotta River on opposite sides of the river.
Merrill [00:01:37] Maine must be pretty cold this time of year.
Nigel [00:01:39] It’s getting chilly. It was pretty good, Frost. Last night it went down to 18 degrees, I think.
Merrill [00:01:44] So, Nigel, you’ve had an incredible career in boating and in writing, but where did this all start? I know at one point you were on oil rigs, but prior to that, how did this entry into maritime happen?
Nigel [00:01:57] Well, I actually I grew up kind of in the middle of the south of England, so there was no water nearby. But I went to a Church of England summer camp. And when I was, I guess, 12 years old and they had a couple of wayfarer dinghies on on the south coast of England, and I just got into sailing. And so we just loved it. And then at school, what would be called this is called high school in the States. Me and a friend got up Mothers on Sports Day to take us off to sail, and they had a dinghy on a flooded gravel pit near where we lived. So we went sailing instead of doing soccer or hockey and everybody else was doing.
Talha [00:02:33] And that’s where the love affair started.
Nigel [00:02:35] And then I was, you know, in high school in the sixties, and that’s when they had the first round the world race. And they were sponsored by one of the big newspapers in England. So it got headline news and it got a whole ton of us fired up with the idea of cycling around the world. And I would sit at the school doodling and drawing pictures of junk and stuff like that and figuring I was going to say around the world.
Merrill [00:02:58] Well, you certainly come from that time frame in which recreational sailing and boating became such a phenomenon. What was it like back in the day?
Nigel [00:03:08] Well, the other aspect to this was home building, because, of course, the boats were a lot simpler. And so a ton of people got into homebuilding, especially in the seventies, and we did the same. I met my girlfriend, currently my wife. Now we’ve been together for 50 years. I, in 1971, took her sailing across the North Sea on my brother’s boat. We got run down by a ship on the way back. Oh, boy. Yeah, He did a lot of damage. We didn’t lose a boat, but it was a pretty scary incident, and I couldn’t get near a seagoing boat for years. So we built a couple of canal boats and being. Let’s steal canal boats, both hulls. And then we would build them out from there. And then finally, after seven or eight years, I just waited until to get back into sail boating. So then we took a backhoe for a 39 foot sailboat until that into a cruising boat. So basically the better part of ten or 12 years, building those boats and learning about boat construction and broke systems and so on.
Merrill [00:04:12] So this first boat that you were on that got hit by another ship, I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned there. What was the story behind that?
Nigel [00:04:19] Well, this was back in the in the early seventies, and we didn’t have any electricity on our boat. It had kerosene, navigation, lights and interior lighting. And we had a lead line for deaths. We had no VHF radio and the engine was hand-cranked. It was a gasoline engine from the 1920s. We had to unscrew the spark plugs, post gas in the cylinders to bring them screw in a while and crank it. But sometimes it would start and forwards and sometimes it would backfire. And just about breaking. So we will become in the North Sea at night with the ship bearing down on us. We didn’t have the time to crank the engine and we couldn’t get out of the way. So a lot of pressure. But other than having to have an engine that would crank up the push of a button.
Talha [00:05:02] You know, you got to love technology. Yeah.
Nigel [00:05:07] We could see where it was going to hit us. We just we didn’t have an opportunity to get out of the way.
Talha [00:05:13] Well, and it was a weather storm mainly because it’s like, oh, it.
Nigel [00:05:15] Was flat calm. It was like a millpond. And in fact, it was a wooden boat and a ship. Henderson Stone And it split the planking on both sides just above the waterline and just place the transom sideways quite a bit, you know, gaping holes if there been any wave I. Sure whatsoever the boat would have sunk. But as it was, it continued to float and they had to tell us back columns to get repaired. And then that was a whole nother issue because we didn’t have any money and we weren’t insured.
Talha [00:05:43] But it was.
Nigel [00:05:44] My boat, it was my brother’s boat, and he was in Canada and I hadn’t told him I was taking it. So there were quite a lot of other knock on issues here. Ship was.
Talha [00:05:54] I imagine. And then. But that didn’t stop you at all. Like then after that, you went on to buy your own boat as well.
Nigel [00:05:59] Well, then we built the two canal boat so that the English canal system was dug before there were engines. So they were all horse drawn barges and the biggest bog so the horse could pull was about 25 tons of cargo. And so the canals were built to accommodate boats that would do that. And they were basically 70 feet long and six foot ten and a half inches wide. Don’t ask me why that. And the locks themselves on the English canal system are 72 feet long and seven feet wide. So we built a couple of 70 foot canal boats. So in the locks we had three quarters of an inch clearance on the sides. I don’t know what age. And because, you know, there were lots of built 200 years ago in the 1700s, some of the bricks as well. So occasionally you get a bit stuck going up and down through some clearance and then the weight of the boat going down would take it down and the water would push it off. So for me, six years building and living on those boats.
Talha [00:06:56] And then, you know, a lot other people do that. No one would almost not do any of that at all.
Nigel [00:07:01] You know, it was that era where we all thought we could do anything to return our hands to and that we’d figure it out as we went along. From what I know now about galvanic corrosion, I’m sure both of those boats are probably at the bottom of the canal system because we knew nothing about those kinds of issues. And then the first boat again had no electrical system and had propane lighting and heating and a hand-cranked engine. A big old pre Second World War hand-cranked diesel engine. And the second boat had had an electrical system, which was my first experience of building electrical systems.
Merrill [00:07:35] So And then at what point did you start working on oil race? What did that look like? I know that you had some interesting experiences in that that field.
Nigel [00:07:45] Yes, I we came to the States in 78 and I started looking for work and discovered I could make three times as much money working in the oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico as I was making in England. So I never went home. I was totally unqualified. The job I got I got a job as an oilfield mechanic, an electrician. And as you can tell from what I’ve already told you, my electrical experience was pretty limited at that point. I got the job by paying a $2,000 cash bribe to the mechanics foreman for this particular oil company I was working for. And then I had to learn rather quickly because I had a, you know, three face, 440 volt electrical system.
Talha [00:08:25] So you yourself easily.
Nigel [00:08:27] Had to learn really fast. I had had a fair amount of diesel experience by that point because my last job in England had been in a in a foundry off the grid foundry, which had half a dozen generators varying from 500 horsepower to three and a half thousand. So I had a thermal engine experience, but almost no electrical experience. So I’m pretty quick at picking stuff up. I ain’t got only got shocked off a ladder once before, but so I got the hang of it pretty quickly.
Talha [00:09:00] And have you been writing in the background yet on anything or as a three year old boy?
Nigel [00:09:05] I actually I messed my back up on oil rigs. I will rupture the couple of discs. I realized I’d have to get into something else. At that point, we were pretty much finished with building a 39 foot boat in the States and ready to go cruising. So I had a lot of diesel engine experience, both small and big. So I went back me up the tiny bit. I had built the refrigeration systems on our boat out of a book. Basically, I went to the library and figured out.
Talha [00:09:36] Yeah, people used to do that back in the day, right?
Nigel [00:09:38] Yeah, Yeah. And I never were familiar with that. And then finally I figured that stuff out. So I wrote a little book on how to how to build a marine refrigeration system. And I tried to find a publisher and I couldn’t. But the publisher came back and said, Well, how about a book on diesel engines? So I said, Sure. So that was the origins of my marine diesel engines and so fairly well right out of the gate and has continued to sell ever since. Actually we’re on the name of thing. And then as a result of that, the publisher asked for what became to be known as mechanical electrical manual. Yeah, yeah. And by that point we know we had built three boats, two of them with electrical systems. I had learned a fair bit about both electrical systems and, and there was almost there was no published knowledge on these kinds of systems. So initially I said no, I thought it said two books, too much work. And then the publisher found two other people. It’s maybe the three of us could do it together. And I said, There’s no way I’m sharing the royalties.
Talha [00:10:38] Yeah. After all that work.
Nigel [00:10:41] That pushed me over the edge into writing the first edition. And then as soon as that was published, I got a bunch of snotty letters from an organization called The American Vote and Gold Council, which writes the electrical standards for American Recreational Boat Building. And of course, there were a number of descriptions in the book that violated the standards. So I started going to their meetings, and I’ve been going ever since. And we’ve gone very rapidly to a second edition to clean the book up from a standards perspective. And then I’ve been going to ABC for well over 30 years now, and I’ve learned a huge amount just from those interactions. So that’s.
Talha [00:11:20] Cool.
Nigel [00:11:20] But every time.
Talha [00:11:21] I bet at some level they just tell me that you didn’t see yourself becoming like the authority on the subject or anything. Right? But you know.
Nigel [00:11:30] What I realized was there was a need for this knowledge. And I’m a I’m a journalist rather than, you know, I have a degree in philosophy, so I don’t have a degree in electrical engineering or anything like that. What I did when I realized on the first edition of the book there was a need for this knowledge. I went around boat shows talking to the then gurus of the day, people like Steve Proctor and Dave Smead and Bill Montgomery from Belmar. And essentially I picked their brains and then what I did was to codify that knowledge. So it’s not much of it’s not my knowledge what I do. I now have a Rolodex, you know, of hundreds, if not a couple of thousand people don’t really know what they’re talking about in the industry. And so my job is to take that knowledge and to put it into a format, whereas accessible to non-technical people. So that’s really what I’ve specialized in doing. And of course, in the process I’ve gotten to learn a lot until finally I got to doing some original research and development where I thought we could probably envelope with these systems. But for the first couple of decades, basically all I was doing was codifying other people’s knowledge.
Talha [00:12:39] Definitely dig, dig deeper into that, pushing it further. Right. I think Michael has a question first.
Merrill [00:12:44] So you have been doing a lot of research when it comes to battery technology and you’ve seen it develop over time. What is the current state of batteries, you know, from where they started to where they’re at now?
Nigel [00:12:57] Well, interestingly enough, everybody thinks in terms of lithium ion, but in the lead acid world, there’s more development going on than probably any time in the history of those battery development. So there’s constant improvements being made there. But the real movement, of course, is in the lithium ion world where we’ve got four times the energy density or quarter in the morning for the same performance. And in fact, because you can routinely use most of the capacity in a lithium ion battery, whereas you’re in a let us have battery there, it looks even better. So the lithium ion world is just opening up all kinds of new opportunities in terms of electric propulsion and hybrid systems and so on. Mm hmm.
Merrill [00:13:38] So, Nigel, you started in the industry back when it was hand-cranked engines, and it’s developed over time to such an extreme on your end, it’s hard to get at least.
Talha [00:13:52] Two generations right From anchor to machine cranked electric crank. Right.
Merrill [00:13:56] Well, so.
Nigel [00:13:57] Of course, the hand-crank was ancient when I had it as well. But no, we had lots of electron crank motors in those days. But so far, a sailboat that we built with both electric in hand and we can hand cranking.
Merrill [00:14:11] So how have you seen the industry develop over time and kind of where is it headed, especially with all the technology that’s happening on the battery front?
Nigel [00:14:20] Well, in general, there’s a mindboggling level of integration going on now. We’ve got so much information flowing around our boats and it’s all getting brought onto the same networks and then displayed on our multifunction displays. So an unbelievable level of integration and that’s ongoing. It gets more and more centralized every year, which is has some wonderful side effects in terms of display and user interface and so on. But obviously some serious downsides in terms of troubleshooting if anything goes wrong. Most of these systems are well beyond the competence of any of us, myself included, to troubleshoot. And in fact, on my own boat, I have a digital switching system. It was a first generation system that we put in in 2006 or seven. I think it’s obsolete. And the company went out of business in 2018. And if the system fails, which it will at some point, I am totally unable to fix it. I’ll have to rewire the entire boat because there’s no support for it anymore and no parts. Mm hmm. So there’s a thinking, a downside to integrating everything.
Merrill [00:15:27] Well, that brings up a pretty good topic. You know, one of the. The things that I’ve seen in the industry with the short time I’ve been in it, is that all these new technologies are coming around, yet there’s not a good support system behind many of the things that are coming out. Can you speak on that a little bit?
Nigel [00:15:46] That’s a huge problem. Typically speaking, the education of marine technicians takes place in the boatbuilder or the boatyard and is based on previous knowledge. There’s not much opportunity for people to access new knowledge, and the necessary knowledge has just increased exponentially over the last decade. So there’s an unbelievable shortage of qualified technicians, both on the installation side and also on the service side. I have a presentation I do every once in a while on common electrical mistakes on boats. Almost all of the illustrations, the photographs in that presentation come from new boats that I inspected at the Annapolis boat show. The boat builders just having trouble keeping up with all of this, let alone the technicians in the field. One of the reasons I launched a year ago a website. It’s w w w boat, how to accom boat, how to accom which is basically online marine electrical education. It’s not pretty subscription based, but one of the reasons we did that is because there is no good source of this kind of information for people. And it’s it’s really seriously needed. A lot of the information that’s out on the Internet is at best incorrect and sometimes dangerous. So what we’re trying to do is create a a go to website with reliable education, complies with the various boat building standards, the American Yacht Council, the ISO in Europe and so on. And so far we’ve got a basic electrical course and we’ve just launched an advanced marine electrical course. And over time, we’re just adding more content to the site.
Merrill [00:17:26] I was at a boat show, I was at IBEX, and I was talking to one of the bigger CEOs of an engine company, an engine company that we all know of. But I’m not going to mention it here. And I was talking to him about his new engine with interconnected systems. And I was like, oh, well, you know, this is very mechanical, but now you need to have like a whole understanding of hard core electronics who’s going to surface this? And he was like, Oh, well, the boat dealer as well. I’m like, the boat dealers. They sell a boat, they wipe their hands clean and they say, Good luck. And he looked at me. He said, Yeah, it’s going to be bad.
Nigel [00:18:02] I know a boat. Although they put in this is a big trawler yachts. They put in a couple of man diesels. I’m not sure what, probably six or 700 horsepower, maybe 800 common, real high pressure, common rail engines. And one of them had an intermittent fault that was driving everybody nuts. It took them 8 hours of expensive time to track down a poor connection in one of the plugs in the engine harness. And boy, because these engines are so sophisticated, they see the slightest little blip in one of the sensors. They shut the engine down. So, yeah, So there are a ton of downsides to this technology.
Talha [00:18:40] So you’re a big proponent of sustainability and sustainability yachting and how does that this sort of thing I know you’re making a website, you’re trying to sort of remedy the situation, but how does this sort of transcend that and sort of become sustainable and not, you know, you need, again, to spend so much manpower or materials or again, it just becomes obsolete because you have to buy the new one, get the upgrade or it doesn’t fit into the system. How do we get beyond that?
Nigel [00:19:05] Well, in the bigger picture, I actually believe climate change is real, unlike some people in the States. And we have to reduce our carbon footprint. And I think politically it’s going to be unacceptable for us to continue to run gas guzzling and diesel guzzling engines in our boats for pleasure. And I think that’s going to happen sooner than many people expect. So we have to move to some form of non carbon polluting energy systems on our boats for propulsion and house energies. And right now, the only real way of doing this is through electrification and the assumptions there being that when we go in and plug in an adult, that the electricity is also coming from the carbon neutral source, which of course it mostly isn’t at the moment, but there’s no way with current battery technology, which is the only way we have of storing energy and electrical energy on a boat, there’s no way that we can get sufficient storage to have any decent range and power on on a boat so we can electrify all short range boating nowadays with the latest generation lithium ion batteries. But we still need a fossil fuel engine for substantial propulsion modes. Mm hmm. Well, no, I think and I don’t see that changing in the next five or ten years, which means we’re going to run into a problem with public perception that we shouldn’t be running these engines. And the fact that we don’t really have an alternative. And I think there is a solution now in the aviation. Industry. They have a similar problem and they’ve now developed ways of making jet fuel carbon neutral. Jet fuel. Basically they do carbon capture and then they take water and they crack it into hydrogen and oxygen using solar power. And then they blend the hydrogen with the captured carbon and they make a hydrocarbon, they make kerosene, and then they can run planes on it. And this technology actually works. So I think we will have mechanisms to create carbon neutral fuels that will extend the life of our diesel and gasoline engines and enable us to get over the hump until we can go fully electric or some other technology becomes viable.
Merrill [00:21:07] So what other things need to happen? And, you know, we keep talking about kind of the boats themselves, but in terms of infrastructure, when it comes to just marinas, is there anything that needs to happen in order to make electric engines more viable?
Nigel [00:21:22] Sure. Back in the sixties, there was a light in Australia that went fossil fuel free. So even way back then they were building and they had a lot of people that like to water ski on the lake. So they were building both humongous battery banks and huge electric motors and water skiing. Well, on a Saturday evening they’d all go back to the dock and plug in to recharge the batteries and they actually crashed the substation to the local town. So they had to build a new substation to handle the loads. We’re going to have similar kinds of issues if we dramatically increase the pace of electrification, the Shoreside infrastructure is really going to get stressed out. And in particular, we have high capacity battery banks that we want to charge fast. We’ve got to have humongous electrical capabilities on the dock. So there’s a whole process that has to take place here. The only country that I know of that’s putting a lot of effort into the Marine side of this at the moment is Norway. And they’re putting in charging stations and a lot of their marinas so that people can coast all around Norway in electric powered boats and be able to get into a new marina and charge it and then go to the next one. Not much. In the same way that we have infrastructure for electric cars now on land, we need similar kind of infrastructure in marinas.
Talha [00:22:37] So let me get your take on this. I mean, I agree with the whole electrification of things. In fact, California’s already said by 2030 they’re not going to allow anymore gas cars or petrol cars or whatever. And that’s only, you know, five years is going to be marine, etc.. What I’m seeing on the other side, though, is, for example, again, one of these new engine manufacturers, we don’t need to name them, but they’ve in their advert, which you can go watch on YouTube, they’ve said that they’ve made deals with boatyards where these engines, the new ones, the electric ones, can only go in on new boats. And to me that’s sad because again, like a lot of these older boats, they’re, you know, their whole values. The fiberglass in there is with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sometimes they don’t make boats that well anymore and they’re basically going to sink all of them. Yeah. They’re just going to make them obsolete, render them obsolete. And is that. Yeah, we achieving what we want to is we’re trying to be carbon neutral, etc. and we’re essentially making yeah, they probably make reefs out of them probably, you know. Yeah.
Nigel [00:23:31] Well there’s just so many variables at work in these kinds of discussions. I mean because there’s a whole element of what would it take to make the electric motors and the batteries and so on. Much of the time that whole process is nowhere near carbon neutral. And and then there’s all of the politics of the cobalt that we’ve got in many of lithium ion batteries. A significant amount of that is mined with child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And then the processes for extracting the lithium salts are often very environmentally unfriendly. So there’s a massive of issues and problems related with all of this technology, and we’re kind of fumbling our way through it. And I certainly don’t have the answers. But I do think as I’m an environmentalist, you know, I do I do believe in reducing our carbon footprint to the minimum. I think we have to do it, especially for older than you guys. I’m going to, you know, before the ship really hits the fan. But but we have to think about our children.
Talha [00:24:30] And their children.
Nigel [00:24:31] We absolutely have to get this under control. But we don’t have a clear path to that at the moment. We’re still struggling with all of these issues. And in fact, I was on a conference call yesterday with the National Marine Manufacturers Association. That was it was looking at a number of these issues and trying to figure out what’s the right way forward. We obviously we have to figure it out pretty quickly. We have to be willing to take some fairly radical steps, even if they hurt. And that is a big part of the problem. Of course, people are trying to avoid taking painful decisions and instead looking for an easy way out. The probably isn’t an easy way out of this whole situation.
Merrill [00:25:08] Well, there was this proposed restriction on all boats over 35 feet having a ten not speed limit. So I was sitting there being like, well, that’s the quickest way to get everyone electric. There’s no point of owning these giant diesel engines anymore.
Nigel [00:25:22] Yeah, but politically, you’ll never get that through. I mean, I’ve been in Miami on a boat with a five 750 horsepower. Help was on the back of it. Oh, boy. I tell those people they’ve got a ten mile an hour speed limit. So I do think.
Talha [00:25:39] Speeding ticket.
Nigel [00:25:40] Is going to be actually some interim fuels for some of these engines that are carbon neutral, which will will help to extend the period in which we can engage in the transition. But obviously, the focus has to be on getting away from any form of fossil fuel engine, carbon neutral or otherwise, into other forms of transportation.
Merrill [00:26:04] So when are both going to have nuclear reactors? Is that ever going to.
Nigel [00:26:10] Let you do the testing on those.
Talha [00:26:16] Buildings? Drove it.
Nigel [00:26:17] Eventually you will see and downwind of you when you’re doing it.
Talha [00:26:25] But tell us more about the projects that you’ve been working on. You mentioned alternators and solar and talked a little about the how to say maybe.
Nigel [00:26:33] Something about this, a reduction in emissions. When we we run an engine to drive a propeller, the propeller never loads the engine to peak efficiency. It’s just a nature of the way engines develop power and propellers absorb it. And almost always up until you get so close to wide open throttle, if you can add load to the engine, it makes it more efficient. So we realized in the testing that we did on our first project that was funded by the European Union, that if we could basically transfer most of the generating that takes place on boats and particularly on boats that have a stand alone generator, if we could transfer that generating load to the engine when it’s underway, we could substantially improve the efficiency of the engine from a propulsion point of view. We could also harvest the electrical energy way, way more efficiently than we do with a with a standalone generator. So we got into that whole project and we developed something called the Integral System, which is basically an alternator on steroids with a fancy control system that belts on the front of the engine where you would put another alternator and that thing will produce one is called nine kilowatts of energy, one alternator when it’s hot and dropped to about seven kilowatts. But still it’s pretty mind boggling. But in the process it’s multiple times more efficient than the average efficiency of a generator and improving your propulsion efficiency. So right now we can do some little things to improve efficiency. I think the next step up comes with what’s called a parallel hybrid, where you have an electric motor that takes care of all the low speed maneuvering, which is when your engine is most efficient, and then when you need to go a cruising speed, you crank the engine because of that. That’s where the engines do get close to the peak efficiency. So you marry a relatively small electric motor to your gasoline or diesel engine, and basically you turn a boat into a Toyota Prius and you use the same concepts, but with very different mechanical interfaces and so on. So we’ve been working on that and then other people have had those systems getting a little better. And we actually we just won an award in a big boat show in Europe, the Met show, for the next iteration of our Integral System, which will have a parallel hybrid built into it.
Merrill [00:28:52] I’ve seen, you.
Nigel [00:28:53] Know, these are stepping stones to optimize the efficiency of our existing technology. They don’t get rid of the fossil fuels, which is got to be the ultimate goal in all of this.
Merrill [00:29:03] When we spoke with Bruce Schwab, he was telling us that when you start, you know, working with electric engines and kind of all of the sustainability, you really come to realize how awesome diesel is.
Nigel [00:29:15] Yeah. Well, in terms of energy density, if you look at a tank of diesel and then compare the volume all the way to, say, a lithium ion battery, it’s probably got 40 times the energy density really. But the here’s the bit that people never think about. The diesel engine is only 30 to 40% efficient at its best. And the average efficiency in our boats is probably not much more than 10%. So right there, 40 times drops to maybe ten times more energy density because the electrical system is probably 80% efficient. And so if we can say quadruple the energy density of lithium ion batteries, we can actually get very close to the effective energy density of a diesel engine versus a electric engine. So it’s not like we have to improve the energy density 40 times. It’s somewhere between, say, 4 to 10 times, which is a tall order in order to do that. But it’s not an impossible thing. I don’t think that’s exciting. Yeah, no, I think the next ten years we’re going to see some really amazing development. The last time we have this kind of system ferment in the world was in the 1970s. And we got Solid-state electronics and that gave us a fancy voltage regulators and our inverters and our modern battery charges and all the bits and pieces that we have in our energy systems right now. That was back in the seventies. And I see the the sort of technological ferment is going on now as being every bit as radical as what we saw in the 1970s. It’s going to transform how we manage the propulsion and energy systems on our boats.
Merrill [00:30:58] One of the things is that if you look at the statistics of boat ownership in the United States, for instance, year after year, the amount of sailboats has decreased. So do you think that sailing is going to have a resurgence in terms of like ownership with all of these different things that could happen?
Nigel [00:31:17] It’s difficult to say. I don’t see it in the States sailing. It’s much more prevalent in Europe. I don’t know what the ratio of power to sail there is, but it’s much the same proportion is much higher than it is in the States, especially as we get to the point where we can make the powerboats carbon neutral or close to it. It doesn’t you know, it takes some of the emphasis away from sail flashy. I just had to buy a new set of sails for a boat, and if I put that into the cost of diesel, I could run a powerboat for a couple of years.
Talha [00:31:54] Yeah. Are you buying a whole engine? Plus the gas, basically. Wife?
Nigel [00:31:58] Yeah. So some of this is a bit notional because the other thing you can do with the sailboat on the sale is you can freewheel a propeller, generate off of it, but that doesn’t work at speeds below eight knots. I mean you get a little bit of energy, but it’s a trivial amount. But once you can get up to sailing speeds of ten and 12 knots, which many of these high speed catamarans do consistently, you can generate a ton of energy of a free wheeling propeller. I mean, ten out, you can be pretty much guaranteed of getting a kilowatt off of each propeller once you get to 1215, Not sure if you’re talking three and four kilowatts. So then it really makes sense to sail.
Merrill [00:32:35] There was this boat I saw in Newport and it was I forgot the name of the style of boat, but basically it had two electric motors in it, which allowed for almost like a powerboat control where you could kind of use the port side or the starboard side engine and you could maneuver it like a powerboat and do a 360 in place. And I thought that was absolutely fascinating. I was like, Oh, well.
Nigel [00:33:02] Yeah, we’ve had the rotating pot drives and things like that have been developed at various times. None of them have ever got any real traction in the marketplace, mainly for technical problems, not because the ideas were bad. The other interim approach, which is quite interesting in a catamaran, is to put an electric motor in one hull and to put a hybrid of a parallel hybrid in the other diesel engine with an electric motor electric generator built into it. And then for all you low speed stuff, you can run the electric motor. And then when you want to go cruising speeds, you run the electric motor in one, how you run the diesel engine in the other hull, and you use a diesel engine to also drive a generator. And the generator powers the electric motor in the other home.
Talha [00:33:43] That’s cool system. Yeah.
Nigel [00:33:44] Yeah. And then you get rid of the generator off the boat and you get rid of one of the diesel engines in the house. So there’s a lot of interim experimentation going on, none of which gets us to an ultimate solution of the carbon footprint. But they’re all steppingstones, and all of these involve developing new forms of electric propulsion motors and motor controllers and so on, all of which incrementally get us closer to a more full solution.
Talha [00:34:12] And how does solar fit into this equation?
Nigel [00:34:14] Well, of course, any amount of solar is worth putting on a boat, in my opinion. And if you calculate what it costs to generate electricity on a boat using a fossil fueled engine, when you build into that calculation the amortization cost of the engine, how much if you let’s say we take an engine costs $15,000 to install and it’s got a life expectancy of 5000 hours. It costs us $3 an hour to run it regardless of whether it’s doing any work. If you build that amortization cost into the cost of generating electricity on a boat, you generally find it’s between $3 at the low end and $20 at the high end per kilowatt hour for electricity that we get at home for 10 to $0.20. So it’s enormously expensive way to generate electricity. So when you look at solar and from that perspective, even though you’re in solar, it’s pretty expensive and then you’ve got to install it. So long as you use the boat and you use the electricity that the solar is generating, it’s a really good investment. And then on top of that, of course, it’s not burning any fossil fuel, so it’s got climate benefits, but just financially, any amount of solar on a boat that gets used on a regular basis is a really good investment.
Talha [00:35:25] I have a vision of like solar sailing is going to pick up where they have like giant solar panels and its electric engines. Unknowable range. And I just think that’s going to happen.
Nigel [00:35:34] Well, they if there are people solo boats moving around, of course, they don’t work very well at night. But aside from that, and realistically, you cannot fit sufficient surface area on a boat to drive a propulsion system. Any boats cruising speeds. You just can’t do it with current solar technology. The efficiency of the panels has crept up over the last ten or 15 years from the peak efficiency on these panels from maybe 16% to 25%, which doesn’t sound like much. That’s only what, a 9% increase in efficiency.
Talha [00:36:08] So there is.
Nigel [00:36:09] But when you look at it in terms of going from 16 to 25 is actually more than a 50% decrease. You know, it’s quite dramatic. And in the lab, they’ve got, I think, as high as 40% with some of these panels now. But still, there’s nothing on the horizon respect to solar that will will generate enough energy to drive the propulsion system on a boat at normal cruising speeds. We just don’t have that surface area. And then we’ve got fuel cells, but there’s no hydrogen infrastructure. So we’ve had various experiments where people feel solar to hydrolyzed, to crack seawater, to extract the hydrogen, to run a fuel cell. But if you’re going to do that, you might as well use the energy from the solar panel to drive the electric motor in the first place instead of using it to hydrolyzed water and then run a fuel cell to generate electricity again. It just doesn’t make sense.
Talha [00:37:00] Hmm. And in between, I mean, so what you just described as the electrolysis process with the hydrogen, could somehow the current combustion engines be converted to run on hydrogen or something like that?
Nigel [00:37:11] Probably. But you’ve got this energy density problem with hydrogen. I was actually at the Met show. I was up this past week. There was a one kilowatt fuel cell lab, which is pretty decent size with a cylinder, a gas. Was like a snorkel and a diving cylinder about the size of a diving cylinder. Mm hmm. Well, even 300 BOE, which is 300 times £14. So that’s a really high pressure. That cylinder was only storing 4.6 kilowatt hours of electricity, effectively, once it was one to the fuel cell and convert it to electricity, 4.6 kilowatt hours would run my boat. You know, I have a 48 foot sailboat cruising speeds for maybe 30 minutes, and then you’ve got to go find another cylinder of gas. So I don’t see the technology any signs of it being viable in boats. Now they’re looking at doing it on ships because ships go from one place to another known place, so they can create the infrastructure to store the hydrogen on shore and then loaded onto the ships and then they’re probably going to store it. If you I think if you get it down to a low enough temperature, close to absolute zero, you can liquefy it and then you can get really high storage volumes. But I’m not lots about that. But anyway, they are definitely looking at it. Dual fuel ships, but it’s a totally different duty cycle, an application to what we’re doing. I don’t see any way we can make it work in in recreational boating.
Merrill [00:38:38] So you’re one of the huge gurus when it comes to all these different systems. What over the next few years excites you?
Nigel [00:38:47] In the interim, it’s perfecting hybrid systems and particular parallel hybrid systems because I think that’s the best of the interim technologies we’ve got. And then the whole time is just keeping a watching brief on mechanisms to store electrical energy and sufficient density to where we can actually get the engine off the boat altogether. But as I say, I don’t see anything on the horizon to do that right now for any one significant range. We can do it for all sort of day sailing and short range. We have, you know, skimming boats and weight boats and those kinds of boats that electrified because they’re used for an hour or two or three and then they go back to the dock and recharge. But for people like myself that went across oceans and liveaboard for weeks and months at a time without going to Marina, there really is no alternative to fossil fuel at the moment. We can make the systems a lot more efficient, but we can’t get rid of that tank of diesel, the tank of gasoline.
Merrill [00:39:43] Well, I think one thing that all of this highlights is the amount of opportunity that exists, especially to try to come up with alternatives. So what would be some tips in how to get into that side of the industry for some person that’s listening to this?
Nigel [00:40:00] Well, I think the most useful tip would be to don’t try it. Almost everybody that has a bright idea and then goes to work on it. There’s almost none of that ever panned out in practice. And I’ve seen people spend their entire life savings trying to make a bright idea that they’ve got a commercial reality. It’s really, really hard. So if you want to do something like that, try and find somebody else to fund it. I don’t think that’s what you’re looking to do. But, you know, it’s tough. You know, if it was easy, it would have been done. Already we’re trying to solve longstanding problems, which many really smart people are throwing an awful lot of money and made occasional breakthroughs. But it’s most of the time these projects fail and I’ve seen dozens of them over the years fail in the boat world. So you’ve got to be pretty determined and you’ve got to be resigned to the fact that it might not work and accept whatever losses that might incur, because it’s really tough to create a new product in the boat world and make it a commercial reality.
Merrill [00:41:05] Mm I hear you. Maybe the way of doing it would be a sailboat with electric motor, lithium ion batteries, solar panels when generator and then a bicycle connected to the battery that you can just bike.
Nigel [00:41:20] Right, Right. Then you get the energy at the same time they all those pieces, they all exist by now. And we can put those together into really nice boats with decent power systems on a modest range. What we can’t do is put them on to a boat within a decent range without putting the engine in there. Again, going back to something.
Merrill [00:41:41] Well, it sounds like the big hurdle is the engine side of things. It seems from what we’ve seen, that there’s a lot of efficiency that are going into refrigeration, into so many different systems on boats. But the underlying problem seems to be the engine.
Nigel [00:41:56] Yeah, we’re up against, you know, physics and the limits of what can be done with internal combustion engines. And it’s very difficult to get the efficiency on them much beyond 30 to 40%. So on two thirds of the fuel that’s going into the engine, even that peak efficiency is being wasted as heat. Then of course you can do heat recovery and stuff and get some some of that energy back that way. But fundamentally, they’re just inefficient pieces of care. We just don’t have a viable alternative at the moment.
Talha [00:42:25] Well, all I.
Nigel [00:42:26] Know, but we’re going to have an alternative on the propulsion side. It’s we just don’t have the energy storage for the alternatives, and that’s the real problem.
Merrill [00:42:34] Well, all of this has been quite fascinating and slightly concerning. Where can people find you and read more about what you’re doing and check out all the stuff that you’ve been working on?
Nigel [00:42:44] Well, listen, that boat Hal to website I mentioned and then the projects I’m involved with, they’re all at the moment by the integral system. So that’s integral systems dot com. But other than that, I still write mostly for professional Boatbuilder magazine, which is a trade magazine. It’s really good and I do a certain amount of seminar work of boat shows and that’s about it these days.
Talha [00:43:09] Awesome. Nigel In closing, though, maybe like I hear you’re a big proponent of minimalism, maybe just like, what’s your take on minimalism? We can leave it there then.
Nigel [00:43:18] Well, I not as much as a minimalist minimalist as I used to be. It’s nice to have a fridge and freezer on the boat. When we first went sailing, we had none of these amenities and we had a big awning to collect water and we had a really light footprint other than when we put in sail and had to climb the engine mostly to get in and out of marinas or anchorages and so on. I have to say you rather rapidly get used to having a fridge and freezer and hot water on the boat, but we don’t have air conditioning. We’ve never had air conditioning. That’s a huge energy. It just sucks up energy and most of the time they almost never need. If you’re out in an anchorage, I’m just the tiniest bit of a breeze. It doesn’t matter how hot it is outside, it’s got some kind of an awning and you can or a wind scoop around a hatch, but the boat’s going to be comfortable. So 90% of the time people have air conditioning. We really don’t need to be using it. If you’re in a totally airless environment or in the marina, maybe so. But we do sail as much as we can. So our carbon footprint is pretty low. A tanker diesel on the boat losses basically two or three years worth in.
Talha [00:44:31] Nice. Good stuff. Yeah, we’ll close it there. He can do it. Anyone can do it, Right. Thank you, Nigel.
Nigel [00:44:38] Oh, thank you. Good to talk to us.
Talha [00:44:39] Great chat. Yeah. Keep up your adventures and hopefully we will have you again in the future and you’ll give us some new tips and tricks to break the guys that were otherwise heading towards. Thanks, Nigel. Take care.
Nigel [00:44:52] Bye bye.
Farah [00:45:12] Check back every Tuesday for our latest episode and be sure to like, share and subscribe to ship shaped up for.