When long weeks at sea require complete independence, total autonomy, in some of the most remote and inhospitable ocean areas, complete reliance on electric and sustainable, self-generated energies was previously deemed too much of a risk.© Jacques Vapillon / DPPI / Vendée Globe
Of course, there were those who took and used self regulating wind turbines and solar panels for energy such as the pioneering American Bruce Schwab used, or Raphael Dinelli who relied on natural energy other than using about 60 litres of diesel.
In 2008, Yannick Bestaven started the Vendee Globe pioneering the use of hydrogenerators with the objective of becoming the first soloist to complete the using only sustainable energies. He was dismasted early in the race which rather curtailed his demonstration of the new technology he was developing, but since then, he has set up and operates Watt & Sea which is established as one of the market leaders in the development and installation of 'hydros' for ocean racing and for cruising.
Sanso-nearly but not quite
In 2012, the Spanish skipper Javier 'Bubi' Sanso raced most of the way around the world on his Acciona 100% Eco Powered. Had he not capsized, losing his keel off Madeira just a few days from finishing, he would have finished and udeniably proven the reliablity and efficiency of his sustainable technologies. And so it was only at the conclusion of his dramatic 2016-17 race that Conrad Colman was recognised as the first solo racer to complete the Vendee Globe using no fossil fuels at all, relying only on eco-sustainable power, with no diesel engine and not using the obligatory generator.
The eco-revolution is up and running?
Guillaume Evrard the Managing Director of IMOCA believes that there will be no let up in the advances and use of these new green technologies. "We are in a continuous evolution. Yannick Bestaven really took the big step forward in 2008 with the hydrogenerator. Now everyone is using the water powered, hydrogenerators."
"I really feel like I was just updating an an idea that was already in existence," responds Bestaven who raced in the colours of Aquarelle.com - La Charente Maritime. " Unfortunately, I did not get very far in my adventure, but since then skippers like Jean Le Cam and others have shown that water turbines, hydrogenerators, are sustainable and effective."
The upcoming 2020 edition will undoubtedly be marked by a wider adoption of electric motors aboard IMOCA race yachts. So believes Guillaume Evrard:
"What has changed now is that even the more sporty, competitive projects are are seriously interested in the problem, such as on the new boats being designed or on boats of the most recent generation." That Alex Thomson is working on his project of a fossil fuel-free boat in concert with his automotive partner is but one notable sign of the convergence of the cutting edge competitive teams and and more eco-sustainable badged projects.
Generating, yes, but what about storage?
Before embarking into the world of the Vendée Globe in 2015, Stéphane Le Diraison was an engineer. At Bureau Veritas he was responsible for the renewable energy department. In fact, his 2016 epic had insufficient preparation time to go round 'green', but on the 2020 it should be possible.
"Running with zero fossil energy is a prerequisite," says the former skipper of Compagnie du Lit - Boulogne-Billancourt, a member of the IMOCA class technical committee. "What was once more of a communication angle is now much more important. It is now proven that using the forward motion of the boat to create energy from the hydrogenerator and that electrical engines are reliable. But the problem is now not generation by storing this energy. The rules require us to be able to go at five knots for five hours. But we don't really know yet how to store this energy very efficiently except using up a lot of space and with obvious weight penalties. And then, being honest, I was not really too unhappy to be using diesel to get to the dock in Australia after I dismasted. It still feels like a guarantee of security that I am not so sure that I would want to go without, yet."
Yannick Bestaven adds: "We are not always producing energy when we need it and so the question of storing power is still the key question. And, of course, we are always looking for more power when now we have these super sophisticated and powerful autopilots, telecoms, video production, big weather files required all day long."
Reasons to be cheerful.
Is it possible then to turn off the tap on diesel or fossil fuel? Conrad Colman has always believed so and throughout his career has strived to realise that goal. "Having lived in New Zealand that has always made me very concerned about our ecology," says the skipper of Foresight Natural Energy in 2016.
"When I set myself the goal of becoming an offshore racer, it was inextricably linked to a very personal promise not to compromise on my values. During my round the world race in the Class40, in 2012, I used the least diesel. When I did the Barcelona World Race with Nandor Fa, we had more electric power than we had expected thanks to the power generation on the boat. In fact, we only ran the diesel engine to produce heat."
Colman the Brittany based American-New-Zealander was equipped with an electric engine on his first Vendée Globe in 2016. This electric motor was coupled to a generator to comply with class rules. This solution is in line with suggestion of skipper-engineer Yannick Bestaven: " The ideal would be a kind of hybrid electric motor that could be powered by two sources: a battery bank on the one hand, and a generator which could run on fuel on the other hand. These products exist. They are constantly developing. "
"Technological advances are now such that electric power can bring real benefits from a the sporting performance point of view," contends Conrad Colman. "It's absolutely reliable because it's totally waterproof. The engine can even run under water! And it weighs much less than a thermal combustion engine plus 250 litres of diesel. It is not by chance that Alex Thomson, Paul Meilhat and many others are very serious about the issue. "
An Associate member of the IMOCA Board of Directors, Colman reveals his personal dream:
"I want to make the IMOCA class the first international offshore zero fossil fuel class!"