29 October 2016 - 16:27 • 5204 views



Conrad Colman is the only skipper planning to push off the dock on Sunday 6th November seeking to become the first soloist to race around the world non stop in the Vendée Globe using only 100% natural energy, that is to say no fossil fuels. On an older boat, launched in 2005, Colman is resigned to the fact his IMOCA 60 does not have a race winning pedigree, but his primary goals come from the heart.


“The objective is to have it as a reflection of my philosophies. Growing up in New Zealand I was aware of the hole in the Ozone layer there. Even when I was little I would always clean the beaches with my mum. I still do. And I was always taught to tread lightly.” Colman adds, “I converted to become a vegetarian and still am not especially because I care about cute lambs but because I was more concerned about the global impact of the chain, of food production and consumption. And so the project is a reflection of my ideals. Electrification is coming in our infrastructure.”

At the heart of Colman’s energy system is an electric motor. When the boat is moving the prop opens about one third and turns, generating electric power which is stored in nine batteries. Colman has solar panels on his mainsail on the coach roof of 100% Natural Energy. And he is fitting a Watt & Sea hydro generator as back up. Fully charged he has a range of five to seven days depending on how hard the autopilot has to work. As his electric motor is also motive power for the IMOCA a data logger monitors his electronic input and output as the equivalent of an engine ‘seal’.

And he asserts that alone reduces his stress levels and allows him to focus on sailing efficiently. The biggest downside? With no heating it is going to be chilly in the south for the 34 year old.

In Colman’s mind getting around and proving it can be done comes ahead of targeting any particular finishing place. In the 2008-9 race Yannick Bestaven, the founder of the Watt & Sea hydrogenerator was an early pioneer for hydro and renewable power but had to retire in the Bay of Biscay. In the 2012-13 race Javier ‘Bubi’ Sanso came very near to completing the race but lost his keel and had to abandon Acciona 100% Eco Powered capsized 360 miles south of the Azores. Colman takes up the baton with a fierce passion.

Colman explains: “I have 350 watts of flexible solar panels on the mainsail either side, just above the second reef. I am installing 400 watts of solar panels on the cabin top and three I am able to use the propulsion battery pack for my service needs. So that was something which Bubi Sanso did not have, he had a hydrogen fuel cell and a huge series of batteries and all that was attached to his (electric) motor which was sealed (he did not use the engine to generate electric power) and so he was carrying a huge capacity which he was not able to use.”

“Because I have an electronic seal, which is essentially a data logger which captures the status of the system for one minute over each of 90 days, I am allowed to make withdrawals into the propulsion battery pack. Thus for the first time ever in the IMOCA circuit then I can use the propulsion propeller as a generator. In four years we have made such a big step forwards and I am using all of the tools we have on board, not just carrying around static weight.

Colman will effectively be the first skipper to be allowed to use his electric engine and its prop as a hydrogenerator. “The drag is negligible. It does not even register a change on the speedo when it is goes on.”

“Nobody else is doing this. Damien Seguin was using the same electric motor in Class 40 racing but was not allowed to use it as a hydro generator because the class rules do not allow this electric ‘seal’. And it requires someone who has different priorities other than winning the race to develop this technology and adapt it to an ocean racing boat. I knew I was not going to win and so I was looking for something unique,  reflection of myself and with this very late entry and with an older boat, my priority is on doing it differently, asking questions of the status quo and trying to build something for the future.” 

“I have validated all of the technology now after the two Transatlantics, the back and forth. Depending on the conditions and how hard the pilot is pushing I have between five and days on autonomy and also I am using a prototype brushless motor on my autopilot and so it is a way of increasing reactivity and reducing consumption. It is a prototype which has been put together by Teem in Lorient along with NKE. We pulled off the old motor off the hydraulic ram and now have a programming box and a brushless motor. It is programmed slightly different so that it is super reactive but only makes the gesture when it needs to. That reduces the latency. If the stroke lasts a second then there is still a warm up and a cool down phase at each end of that. For the useful stroke you are therefore energy at the beginning and the end of the stroke which is not useful energy. Hydraulic rams have been going out of favour because they are going out of favour but this is bringing them back. Mechanically they are super reliable, very strong and so if we can economise the movement then overall as a package they are more efficient. “

Colman is still trying to find a last minute sponsor or white knight backer to help with his communication budget throughout the race. 

Andi Robertson / M&M