Ali Wood and long-distance cruiser Jon Walmsley look at charging, stowage, regen and performance of the tiller and remote-steered ePropulsion electric outboards...
An electric outboard motor is a very different beast to a petrol one. It’s lighter, quieter and cleaner but does have some drawbacks, such as speed, range and cost.
Testing the Spirit 1.0 tiller-steered electric outboard
by Alison Wood
I first tried ePropulsion’s Spirit 1.0 whilst testing the Tuffy Tender. I was impressed by its simplicity. It had no problems powering the 3m GRP boat and achieved a top speed of 4 knots on full throttle (but with a battery life of just 1.5 hours) or 1.4 knots at 20% throttle (giving 7 hours battery life).
As this was against 2 knots of tide, I felt it would be more than adequate for driving a little tender around the harbour.
Can an electric outboard motor achieve high speeds?
If you want higher speeds, then it’s worth looking at the ePropulsion Navy 3.0 or 6.0, which have a longer range and separate batteries, achieving top speeds of 9 and 13 knots respectively at maximum power (3kW & 6kW). However, you’re then compromising on motor weight (22kg & 28kg), and you’re no longer talking about a portable outboard you can carry one-handed.
Keen to spend more time with an electric outboard, I got in touch with ePropulsion in Hamble, and they kindly loaned me the Evo Spirit 1.0 for the summer, which we used in Poole Harbour and the Isle of Wight on our Excel compact tender.
I also contacted long-distance cruiser Jon Walmsley, who had just taken his remote-steered Spirit outboard across the Atlantic on the ARC 22. Scroll down to see Jon’s verdict.
Carrying an electric outboard motor
As a safety boat driver I have a healthy respect for outboards. It struck me that the Spirit’s small plastic propeller blades are no way near as sharp as metal ones. Should a metal prop hit an object it’ll keep trying to turn, but if the Spirit meets resistance the blades will stop spinning. It’s not a safety feature, rather something to protect the motor, but the Spirit feels far easier to lug around without risking sliced shins, oil stains or snapping parts.
Portability is an important factor, not only because you need to charge the battery, but at £1,875 the Spirit is not something you want to leave unattended on a dinghy. Some people lock them up like regular outboards, but most sailors take theirs home at the end of the day. At 10.2kg for the motor and 8.7kg for the battery, it’s not too heavy.
Charging an electric outboard motor
When I first collected the electric outboard engine, I was advised the battery would drop to 50% if left idle, but this wouldn’t do any damage. You don’t need to exercise or top-up lithium ion batteries, and it’s fine to run them down to empty. The manual says the battery will discharge to 75% after 20 days, and if low for a long time will enter a sleep mode. Though best practice is to activate the battery every 3 months and keep the charge at around 60%, it can be run down to zero before recharging.
I left the battery for a couple of months and it lost around 50% charge. When I reconnected the battery at home I could see we still had around 50% power. A word of warning, if you test it at home; the engine won’t exceed 25W. It’s not broken, it’s just that the propellers need to feel the resistance of the water to use the full 1,000W of power.
At the time of the test I had no battery charge indicator, but the good news is that this is now available.
Another new development is the 48V DC output cable. If used in conjunction with a DC-DC converter (not included) you can get 12V out of the battery to charge the boat’s battery or run items such as fishfinders or coolboxes.
The E-Series LiFePO4 battery has a long life (3,000 cycles at 80% depth of discharge) and is recyclable. It comes with a standard charger, which you plug into the mains, but there is the option of a fast charger, solar charger and DC charger, which need to be purchased separately, but may make more sense for those at anchor or without access to mains electricity.
Whilst the solar charger won’t fully charge the battery, it’s lightweight and portable, so you can take it on a day-trip, and use it on the beach, or a mooring, for example, to give you that extra power to get you home.
Satisfied the battery was fully charged, and we’d read the manual, it was time to test the outboard on the water in Cobbs Quay Marina, Dorset. It was a pretty spot, overlooking a nature reserve, and the kids were keen to explore in the dinghy, looking for egrets and the resident kingfisher.
I tried the outboard first, and was reminded just how sensitive the throttle is. I picked up speed very quickly, nearly flipping myself out backwards.
When I mentioned this to Chris at ePropulsion he explained that the electric outboard generates a high level of torque at relatively low rpm so you quickly achieve maximum revs.
Another thing that takes a bit of getting used to is reversing. Because the engine is silent, neutral is a soft ‘click’ which you can feel but not hear, and it’s easy to accidentally go into reverse.
I soon got used to the engine, but my husband spun in circles, slightly terrified as he narrowly missed the sharp props of moored sportsboats. It wasn’t until I yelled ‘killcord’ that he remembered to pull free the magnet and stop the engine.
The Spirit is not an engine for the ham-fisted, but I later learnt a trick from Chris; there’s a plate in the motor, and if you tighten the screws this increases the resistance throttle.
Once I was confident operating the outboard, I drove out to clear water with the kids. We pottered around, having fun… until I ran us aground. Black mud churned the water. I couldn’t remember how to tilt the leg.
In the end I removed the engine from the transom altogether (thank goodness it was so compact), and rowed to a mooring to try and figure it out. It turns out you need to release a beaching pin on one side, whilst lifting the lever on the other, to raise the engine 75°. Both are tucked away, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with these before you launch!
I also learned there was an ‘anti-grounding’ mode, so if you’re in shallow water or the vicinity of submerged reefs or rocks the motor will automatically tilt up if it hits something.
A word of caution, though; Chris advised me not to leave the outboard in anti-grounding mode because if you forget and go into reverse, it will kick up aggressively.
Our nearest harbour, Christchurch, is very shallow, so I was pleased to learn that there are four trim options (21°, 14°, 7° and 0°). However, these aren’t adjustable on the water. They’re fixed positions for your particular boat to maximise efficiency and avoid cavitation. Changing them involves removing and then replacing a pull pin, so it’s not just a case of quickly lifting the leg to drive over a sandbank, which you can do with the lever-style design on petrol outboards.
Another handy feature of the Spirit 1.0 is that you can disable the steering and lock it into forward with a pin. You could fix the outboard to the transom of a small sailing boat, for example, to give it an extra push, or use it as an auxiliary engine to get you out of trouble.
The pin-lock feature also makes the engine easier to carry by stopping the leg from swinging around.
Fun on the Medina
The kids’ highlight of our summer cruise wasn’t actually the sailing, but the time they spent in the dinghy! We’d hired a 3-man inflatable kayak from Decathlon and launched off the boat at East Cowes, Isle of Wight, for a trip downriver to the Folly Inn. I drove the tender with one of the kids whilst my husband paddled with the other two in the kayak. It soon became apparent that the electric outboard was the star attraction.
The kids begged to have a go, and after a bit of instruction soon became adept at steering. My 6-year-old declared yachts to be boring but driving the outboard the ‘most fun ever’. At one point, when going against the tide, we towed our Decathlon inflatable kayak and its 3 lazy passengers with no problems. Having the outboard gave us that extra level of security, enabling us to go further afield, but we could still row if we preferred.
Having now tried electric propulsion, we’d opt for this over petrol in future. We all loved using the electric outboard. It was straightforward, quiet (enabling us to get close to wildlife), and easy to store and charge. It’s also great not having to worry about sourcing and transporting flammable fuels, and knowing that you’re reducing your environmental footprint.
The top speed of around 4 knots wasn’t really a problem for our needs. The cost would be the most prohibitive aspect, being two to three times the price of a 3hp petrol engine, but then the flip-side is that you’re not paying for fuel (other than your electricity). Come the summer, an ePropulsion Spirit 1.0 may well make it to my wish-list.
Pros and cons of the ePropulsion Spirit 1.0 Evo outboard motor
The benefits of the ePropulsion Spirit 1.0 electric outboard are that it’s clean, lightweight, easy to charge and handle, quiet, portable and you can lock the steering. There’s a clear indication of time remaining at different speeds, it’s available in remote-control or tiller steered models and now has a self-charging (regen) option. Plus, if ever you drop the battery in the water, it floats!
On the downside, you can’t trim ‘on the go’, in shallow waters, it can be difficult to recognise neutral, is sensitive (not for the ham-fisted) and the portable (Spirit 1.0) model won’t achieve higher speeds than 4 knots. It’s also an expensive initial outlay, but bear in mind you’re not then paying for petrol.
Testing the Spirit 1.0 Evo wireless remote-steered outboard
by Jon Walmsley
I am surprised how many electric outboards I have seen at dinghy docks. In Alderney, one third of the dinghies tied up had electric outboards.
I bought the Spirit 1.0 Evo Remote for the 2021 sailing season. I wasn’t sure whether to buy the wireless remote controlled version or the tiller one. Though its primary purpose would be on my Walker Bay 8 tender with tube kit, I also wanted to fit the engine to one of the transoms of my single engine cruising catamaran, Ciel Bleu. This way, it could provide emergency propulsion and low speed propulsive steering, as well as being able to recharge itself through solar power. In this scenario, the electric outboard would be controlled from the cockpit in conjunction with the main engine.
I decided to go with the Spirit 1.0 Evo Remote; I figured I could make my own tiller for it and put the remote on a thwart in the dinghy. This system works well. When I leave the dinghy I take the remote with me. The Remote model is more compact than the tiller version and fits easily in a bag. The other advantage is that, unlike with the tiller, it does not need to be attached and plugged in on return. You just switch it on, and off you go.
No going back
Electric outboards are like electric cars; once you’ve tried one, there’s no going back. We absolutely love ours and so does everyone else that comes in the dinghy. In the first season in the UK we went on long dinghy trips that we’d not have contemplated with our previous noisy outboard. With three on board we went from Harty Ferry to Faversham, enjoying the meanderings of Oare Creek in silence. The 1.2Kw battery gives over an hour of run time flat out. In practice we rarely use more than 500W of the 1000W available. Range anxiety is not an issue.
The outboard splits its weight into the battery and the leg/motor so is easy to manhandle onto the back of the dinghy. As there is no smelliness or oiliness, I keep the outboard in a bag under a bunk when I’m not using it, rather than hanging it on a stern rail as you would with a petrol motor.
The joy of not having to pull start an engine cannot be underestimated! For some people, this laborious motion makes petrol outboards inaccessible altogether. With an electric engine the reverse is true.
Electric outboard security
I padlock the bracket clamps together to stop the outboard being removed from the dinghy as you would with a normal outboard. For added security, I take the remote with me when I leave the dinghy. The issue is the battery. This is unsecured and very valuable. As the number of electric outboards proliferate and people understand the technology, the temptation to help yourself to a spare battery or ‘borrow’ one because yours is flat/failing may become too great. This is something that ePropulsion and the other electric outboard manufacturers need to address. In the meantime, I put a cable lock through the battery handle when I have security fears.
Charging my electric outboard
For those who use a tender to get out to their boat, taking the battery home and charging it with the supplied mains charger is the easiest solution. For cruisers the situation is different. Unless you are marina hopping, you need to charge the battery ‘off grid’. This can be done by one of three means; mains through an onboard inverter, 12V by purchasing the low voltage DC charger or by buying the folding solar panel kit. I use the mains charger as it’s the fastest; 6 hours from empty, and I have a large inverter and battery bank.
The battery started only charging to one third capacity. I called Nestaway Boats, my supplier, who recommended that I run the battery completely flat twice. I did, and, unbelievably it worked, and has been fine since.
Electric outboard regen capability
I bought the Evo Spirit 1.0 for its regeneration capabilities. I have yet to test this. Although charging the onboard battery using regen is useful, in practice when you are using the dinghy a lot you tend to be based in an anchorage. The real benefit to me will be the ability to charge my 12V house battery bank whilst underway. Our average speed crossing the Atlantic was 6.5 knots. ePropulsion claims 100 watts of regen at 6 knots. On passage Ciel Bleu uses about 1 Kwh per day. In theory this could all be derived from the outboard with the addition of a third party 48-12V DC-DC battery charger.
For a small tender outboard, electric is the way to go. The main hurdle when making the switch is the high purchase cost.
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This feature appeared in Practical Boat Owner magazine. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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