Felix Marks attempts to embrace a green future for his Tofinou 7, but his experiment with an electric motor proves costly when damp conditions prevail

The electric motor fantasy: a seamless conversion from a loud, smelly diesel engine to a silently gliding and maintenance-free nirvana, writes Felix Marks.

Reality: one year of bliss, one year of disaster. Cost? £21,000, not including reconversion to diesel.

The project started when my existing 17-year-old Yanmar D13 eventually gave up the ghost on 6 June 2021.

I immediately saw an opportunity for a green future on my beautiful Tofinou 7, Penelope.

I imagined a sustainable alternative to diesel: the boat would charge between sails during the week using solar panels; no need for an electricity supply.

The first thing to do was select a technology that would suit my boat.

A boat moored by a pontoon

Penelope’s engine compartment over the bilges was too damp

I looked at the various manufacturers on Plugboat, did some Google reconnaissance and decided to speak to the Finnish company, Oceanvolt.

As well as offering a mid-boat option with stylish-looking controls and display (the AX3), it also offered regeneration!

Not only would Penelope be charged by the sun but by the passing water through the hydrogenerator while under sail. This was truly a thrilling prospect!

I shared the boat’s vital statistics and got a quote, and the firm then directed me to a boatyard for an installation estimate, which I accepted and pressed play on the project.

The initial estimate to supply and fit the motor was around £15,000, which didn’t include batteries.

That’s a lot of money for a boat valued at around £40,000.

A new diesel inboard would have cost around £4,000. But this was not a rational decision, it was completely emotional!

The first season was ‘utterly magical’ with Penelope sailing and then silently motoring around

It took until the end of July for the electric motor to arrive and the work started at the beginning of August.

Penelope was scheduled to be ready by mid-September but the solar panels were indefinitely delayed because of Brexit, Covid and general global supply chain issues.

I reluctantly gave up on the idea of the solar panels and decided to buy a charger instead.

A proper Victron lithium battery charger costs around £1,000 and requires expensive cabling, and its own housing box on the boat’s trailer, all of which pushed project costs up even further.

The additional work took until the beginning of November and included a sea trial and inspection for the warranty by the manufacturer, which cost around £900.

The entire project now tallied up to just over £21,000.

An electric motor controller for a boat

Oceanvolt motor controller

The vast majority of the costs were taken up with the motor, motor controller, throttle, displays, batteries, charger, cabling, and of course VAT.

But I didn’t care, Penelope was fully electric!’

We picked her up and she did not disappoint.

Apart from a minor high-pitched sound made by the engine when turned on, she was silent under way.

It was like the peace of sailing but with no sails in sight. It was utterly magical and it had all been worth it.

Better still, as the Oceanvolt website said, she was ‘maintenance-free’, unshackled to the world of yearly diesel servicing, worries over stale fuel, and just the whole stinking nature of it.

The first season was an utter delight. We silently motored around the stunning sailing destination of Newtown on the Isle of Wight.

The Tofinou 7 is a beautiful boat and always attracts interest from other sailors. Now with an electric motor, she had the additional appeal of being silent too – such magic!

Felix Marks Tofinou 7 Penelope’s electric engine installation

At the beginning of the 2023 sailing season, we decided to explore Keyhaven for the first time.

We were careful to come in on a rising tide, motored around silently and picked up a mooring for a lovely lunch.

Then, on the way to Lymington, we tried to use the electric motor as we wanted to drop the sails.

The motor failed to run and displayed a position encoder fault. This was very alarming.

Firstly, how could the error prevent the electric motor from running?

Secondly, the marina was effectively a lee shore, so getting back in safely was going to be a challenge.

I called the marina and asked for their help. Their staff couldn’t have been more responsive and saved us from possible pontoon carnage.

A corroded electric motor on a yacht

The corroded Oceanvolt motor in Felix’s Tofinou 7

I contacted the manufacturer, Oceanvolt, and explained what had happened.

It put me in touch with their UK representative, who advised that the fix was to reset the firmware in the motor controller.

Looking back, this is the point where I should have asked the representative to come out immediately and inspect the boat.

He mentioned that the regeneration feature only starts to work when the water passes through the hydrogenerator at 6 knots or faster; Penelope infrequently reaches speeds of 6 knots.

This was a blow to hear since it was a core strand of the fantasy and should been highlighted at the quotation stage.

Anyway, I followed the instructions given to me over the phone.

The reset would be achieved using a ‘Curtis tool’, some kind of special USB dongle for connecting to the controller.

A corroded electric motor on a boat

After one season, Penelope’s electric motor was corroded

However, Oceanvolt only had one Curtis tool in the UK and their representative was taking it abroad for a month for use in an offshore race. Oh dear.

Oceanvolt sent me another from Finland which arrived in late June but by this point, I’d lost a month of prime summer sailing opportunity.

When I eventually had access to the tool and tried to use it, it quickly became apparent that the diagnostics port on the controller was inaccessible.

Oceanvolt had charged me £900 for a sea trial and inspection for the warranty, so I don’t understand why this wasn’t picked up during the certification.

Work was subsequently completed to make the port accessible, and more weeks of sailing were lost.

Oceanvolt then told me the problem was fixed. I took the boat out only to discover more errors that prevented the electric motor from running.

We had now completely lost confidence in the safety and reliability of the electric motor.

Having first contacted Oceanvolt in May, its UK representative didn’t come out to inspect Penelope until November.

I had lost pretty much a whole sailing season.

A man wearing sunglasses smiling on a boat

Felix Marks is the author of Mainsail Trimming and Jib Trimming, published by Fernhurst Books. He has J/24, J/92, J/105, and Sydney 32 racing experience and cruising experience in the UK and Australia. Outside of sailing, Felix works for IBM as a cybersecurity specialist and focuses on the application of AI to threat management disciplines.

When he looked at the engine, he decided the cause of the issues had been the damp conditions inside the motor compartment.

In fact, after requesting a copy of the original inspection document, I discovered that Oceanvolt had identified corrosion at the installation stage.

Suddenly, Oceanvolt withdrew its support under warranty because of how the electric motor had been installed, ie in the engine compartment over the bilges – even though I’d paid Oceanvolt for the certification, and it had signed off my engine despite the signs of corrosion, which would have gone on to make the motor impossible to use.

At this point, Oceanvolt also said that it did not consider me to be their customer.

Further investigation showed that the UK’s departure from the EU means that the previous 2007 Lugano Convention’s protections for judicial co-operation have ceased to apply.

Essentially there’s no longer an affordable and practicable way to enforce a warranty agreement against a European manufacturer.

Suddenly it dawned on me. The whole project had been a terrible misadventure.

There is only one place where the electric motor could have been installed on my Tofinou: in the engine compartment where the old diesel engine had lived.

But whereas a diesel engine can survive those damp conditions, an electric one cannot. The fantasy was destroyed.

One year of heaven and that was it. £21,000 of passionate investment turned out to be folly, a pipe dream.

So what lessons can be learned from this sorry tale?

Clearly, not all boats are the same and if an electric motor can be installed in a dry environment, then all could be well.

If there’s any doubt, don’t make the same mistake as me.

Electric motors and their controllers are very sensitive to moisture; they cannot necessarily be relied upon to serve as a like-for-like swap from diesel to electric.

Also, when considering any significant marine purchases from European manufacturers, think very carefully about whether the warranty is of any practical value in a post-Brexit world.

Electric motor misadventure: lessons learned

  1. Don’t assume that your boat is dry enough for an electric motor. They need to be installed in a dry place.
  2. If your boat is wet, e.g. bilges nearby, dehumidifiers could help but not everyone has shore power.
  3. Check all the manufacturer’s claims carefully. The ‘maintenance-free’ suggestion might assume certain conditions or ongoing maintenance.
  4. Check any claims about regeneration. Will your boat go fast enough for this to be meaningful?
  5. If you are paying for a manufacturer to confirm satisfactory installation, check the paperwork yourself to see if there are any exceptions.
  6. Whose customer are you? Who will you go to if you have a problem? Will the manufacturer stand behind their warranty, or will it simply refer you to the person who installed the engine?
  7. If you are dealing with an EU manufacturer, how will you enforce your rights if needed? Can you obtain the warranty from a UK company?

Oceanvolt responds:

Thank you for sharing your experience. We welcome the opportunity to present Oceanvolt’s perspective on the matter.

Let’s address key points with clarity. First and foremost, it’s crucial to clarify that Oceanvolt, the manufacturer of the electric propulsion system, did not conduct the installation on the Tofinou 7.

Our role was to supply the system and provide support to the boatyard, where the installation occurred.

The responsibility for ensuring an appropriate and dry environment for the motor rested with the boatyard’s expertise and execution.

Regarding the cost concerns amounting to £21,000, it’s important to note that the Oceanvolt electric system’s price was €5,756 (£4,911).

While details about battery costs are unclear, the total likely encompasses components unrelated to our system.

It’s crucial to understand that ‘maintenance-free’ does not absolve the need for care and attention.

Our systems are designed for minimal ongoing maintenance under standard conditions, but due diligence in the installation environment and proper ventilation remain essential for both boat owners and installers.

Addressing concerns about delays and tool availability, we acknowledge the challenges faced, actively striving to improve our support and service protocols.

Unforeseen circumstances, such as global supply chain issues exacerbated by Brexit and the ongoing pandemic, contributed to delays beyond our control.

Oceanvolt boasts a commendable track record with successful installations, underscoring the reliability and durability of our systems under regular conditions.

Moreover, we must highlight an issue concerning the sump bilge pump’s location beneath the motor.

This setup, inherited from the diesel engine configuration, raises environmental concerns.

Potential exposure of oil or harmful liquids in the bilge could lead to direct discharge into the sea.

Regarding warranty support, the withdrawal of assistance was rooted in the identified corrosion during the installation stage, not covered under our warranty.

We stand firm on this decision, stressing the importance of adhering to recommended installation conditions for optimal system performance.

In conclusion, Oceanvolt remains committed to providing practical solutions for boats.

We underscore the significance of meticulous care during installation and usage, recognising the collaborative effort required for successful outcomes.

Continues below…

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