Flight of the Electric Loon
"C'mon family, hop in the electric vehicle because we're going on vacation!"
These words seemed odd as they fell from my lips, but what was more odd is that it didn't seem to surprise them at all. They clearly had become unfazed by my antics; numb, really, to my incessant efforts to rid ourselves of any dependence at all on oil. To go on a 6-day electric odyssey, a "voyage of discovery" if you will, to travel around our beautiful province and to learn something about our people and ourselves seemed out of bounds to even a stalwart EV enthusiast like myself. But to bring the family on such a mission?
Had I gone insane?
Family vacations are well-known to consume incredible amounts of fuel… but for the next 6 days we were going to be in a nearly-constant state of travel and not a drop of $1.25-per-litre gasoline would be purchased en route.
The electric vehicle for this mission would be "the Loon", my own design of solar-assisted electric boat which was about two years in the making. The route would be the historic Trent-Severn Waterway, an incredibly beautiful system of man-made canals and nature-made lakes which spans 240 miles through the thick of rural cottage country in southern Ontario, our province of residence.
The day was August 13th and having only just recently launched the Loon, I hadn't had as much time as I would have liked to fully test it out, but the 20-foot pontoon boat seemed quite seaworthy (or is that "lakeworthy"?) and a number of bugs had already been ironed out to the point that the boat had completed a 3 1/2-hour run without incident. All systems seemed a go and with very little apprehension, my wife, Denise and daughter, Deanna boarded the vessel and if there was any doubt in their minds, they kept it entirely hidden from me. After all, they have seen my electric vehicles succeed and they had witnessed the "back-to-the-drawingboard" moments as well, only this time they had a more personal investment in the outcome.
We live on the shores of Lake Simcoe which was the departure point of this great trek, specifically Bayshore Village, near Orillia, Ontario. Lake Simcoe is a rather large lake, known for kicking up swells easily and with little notice. Casting lines on a beautiful summer day as it was, Simcoe seemed to welcome our vessel's passage and about 2 hours later we were entering the Trent Canal near the village of Gamebridge.
The Trent System presents ever-changing scenery, ranging from simple pastoral settings to cottage country to urban backdrops. We had previously arranged our first night's stay at Sunset Cove Marina, and we arrived there late in the afternoon, having successfully completed our first and shortest leg of approximately 15 miles. The canal system includes many locks, many of which are over 100 years old and manually operated.
To complete this first leg, we had to pass through five individual locks, some separated by as little as a mile and each takes about half an hour – time spent in the sun with the solar panels working all the while to try to catch up with the discharge rate.
At peak, my solar array can put out 738 watts, which equates to about 10 amps of charge. What I found most interesting is that while traveling during periods of direct, intense sunlight, the 10 amps subtracts off the 35 amp, 5-knot cruising rate, meaning that the East Penn deep-cycle lead-acid batteries only have to supply 25 amps. Understanding the effect that Peukert observed which states that capacity is inversely proportional to draw, reducing my battery's draw from 35 to 25 amps increases the boat's range by more than 40% – perhaps the most important benefit of all to having the solar panels.
The crowd that ensued when we docked at Sunset Cove were quite amazed by the sight before them. The Loon is a striking craft with lots of shiny aluminum and quite unlike any other boat plying these waters. The usual questions were asked "How far can you travel? (answer: 30 miles on a cloudy day, more on a sunny day) How fast can it go (answer: 5 knots cruising, 8 knots full speed) and of course "How cheap is it to run (answer: free if you're only traveling about 10 miles per sunny day, otherwise 3 cents per mile if all the energy has to come from the utility grid).
At first the Loon appeared to come off as something of a novelty, i.e., not to be taken seriously stacked against the preponderance of gas-powered boats. What drove it all home for a lot of boaters (myself included) is that we would bump into the same crowd everywhere we went for the duration of our trip, driving home the point that my boat could do everything their boat was expected do, the only difference being that it takes us a little longer. But isn't spending time on the water the purpose of boating? Many a dockside chat centred on just this point.
Day two. Sunset Cove Marina and Rosedale Marina are separated by about 25 miles of waterway without another marina between them. I knew from the outset that this was going to be a challenge, especially since we awoke to find that our battery charger had cut out during the night due to overheating and the realization that the battery's state of charge was somewhere between half and three-quarters. This is probably every EVer's worst feeling – the doubt that exists that he or she (or in my case, one he and two shes) has the poop to make it through the day. Falling short meant subjecting my family to the indignity of begging for a tow and (even worse!) electricity from an unconvinced public.
What ignominy lay ahead for the Gisbornes?
The boat's batteries were nearly taxed to the limit about four miles from the Rosedale Marina and to make the best of the situation, the Loon had to be throttled back to about 2 or 3 knots to get the battery volts up so that the low-voltage disconnect of the Briggs and Stratton brushless DC outboard could be curtailed. The reliable 3-horsepower,150-pound thrust motor (roughly equivalent to a 10 horsepower gas motor) proved to be an excellent workhorse, with high electrical efficiency and a kort nozzle to quietly make the most of every available electron. In Rosedale, a fan was purchased which put an end to the battery charger's overheating situation and we slept well knowing that our problems were properly dealt with.
The next day's 17-mile leg to our end terminus, Bobcaygeon, was a relaxing one. The weather was holding out nicely and even if it did start to rain, the 6 solar panels overhead provide excellent shelter. Time was spent the following morning filming a segment for the local TV news program and after that was wrapped up, we headed back home, reversing the route that we had just taken.
Moored at Sunset Cove Marina on the return trip. The sun shone brightly during the entire trip and provided about 1/3 of the required energy to propel the boat 104 miles. There was little fanfare as the Loon approached its familiar berth at slip 43 in Bayshore Village Marina. About the only sounds that could be heard were the whoops and yippees that we made ourselves having had a less-than-fully-enjoyable return trip on Simcoe due to the 10+-knot winds we encountered.
Safe and sound at our home port, the experience fresh in our minds, we seemed a little wiser, empowered with the knowledge that family fun doesn't have to involve the burning of fossil fuels. We didn't think that our 8-year-old daughter would have to struggle to put pen to paper when asked upon her return to school: "What did you do that was different this summer?"
So where to from here?
So convinced am I that the world would benefit from a boat such as the Loon that I have decided to produce more of them. For delivery for spring 2006, I will make a limited run of 15 available to the marketplace, built by my start-up company, the Tamarack Lake Electric Boat Company, using my proprietary electronics and the tried-and-proven components as used on the Loon. We also have future plans for the original Loon, such as traveling the Rideau Canal, other segments of the Trent-Severn Waterway and maybe even an American waterway or two. If this experience has taught us one thing only, it is that water and electricity (and family fun) do mix!
For more information, please contact:
Tamarack Lake Electric Boat Company
207 Bayshore Drive, R.R.#3, Brechin, Ontario L0K 1B0
(416) 432-7067 (cell phone)
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