A Carbon Neutral Circumnav with Jimmy Cornell

Sail News

The author at the helm of his latest “Aventura”

Historic anniversaries have always held a special fascination for me, especially if they mark a significant nautical achievement. In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ would-be voyage to India, I organized a transatlantic rally that followed the historic route of the three ships that left Palos de la Frontera in southwestern Spain in 1492, sailed to the Canaries and from there went to San Salvador in the Bahamas. We had 147 participants from all over the world, including several who came over from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Argentina specifically to take part in this event.

Similar in spirit was the round-the-world rally I organized in 1998 on the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. After the start in Lisbon, the 32-boat fleet visited several Portuguese territories around the world, with our return to Lisbon coinciding with the opening of the Expo-98 world exhibition.

Ed note: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the author will not be making all the stops shown, including those in Rio or Punta del Este

Ed note: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the author will not be making all the stops shown, including those in Rio or Punta del Este

Undoubtedly, though, the most significant of the 500th anniversaries is that of the first circumnavigation of the globe, undertaken between 1519 and 1522 by a fleet of Spanish ships under the command of Ferdinand Magellan. It presented an irresistible temptation to do something special to mark this momentous achievement, not by organizing an event for others, but by sailing the route myself.

Sailing the same route as Magellan seemed the logical answer. However, I realized I also had an opportunity, to aim even higher. My voyage on the Garcia Exploration 45 monohull, Aventura IV, through the Northwest Passage had been motivated by my concern for the state of the environment and was also part of the Blue Planet Odyssey—a round-the-world rally designed to raise awareness of climate change. The Northwest Passage, like the Arctic as a whole, has been described by scientists as the canary in the coal mine of global climate change. The reason for this is that whatever happens there will eventually spread to the rest of the world. The very fact that I was able to transit this once, essentially impenetrable waterway was entirely due to climate change. While there, I also saw for myself the consequences of global warming, and with climate change increasingly making the news, I wanted to figure out a way to help out with the voyage I was now contemplating. The result was the decision to undertake it on an eco-friendly electric boat with, ideally, a zero carbon-dioxide footprint.

With only a year until the optimal departure date for my planned voyage, I started looking around for a suitable boat. There were several projects already in-process that I considered. But in every case, they were based either on a hybrid solution (diesel engine or generator) or having a diesel generator as a backup. It didn’t take me long to decide I would aim for a boat employing exclusively renewable sources of energy and using absolutely no fossil fuel, either for propulsion or generating electricity.

Even for a dyed-in-the-wool monohull sailor opting for a catamaran seemed to be the best solution for the voyage I had in mind. The reason for this is a performance cruising catamaran would be fast under sail and thus able to generate the necessary electricity. It would also have sufficient surface area to mount a large number of solar panels. I was fortunate in being able to persuade the French catamaran builder Outremer to customize one of its existing models to my specifications, a 48ft catamaran I’ve now dubbed Aventura Zero.

Electric propulsion is a relatively simple operation. However, generating sufficient electricity using solar panels, wind power and most hydro-generators alone is a different proposition entirely. Fortunately, the Finnish company Oceanvolt has been working on power regeneration for the last 20 years and has recently come up with an ingenious system based on its ServoProp variable-pitch propeller. A unique feature of this propeller is the possibility to turn the blades by more than 180 degrees. The software-controlled saildrive is then able to automatically adjust the pitch of the propeller blades so that thrust (when running the drive) and power generation (when sailing) are always at an optimum. In addition, Aventura Zero has eight solar panels with a total capacity (under optimum conditions) of 1,300 watts.

Again, the essential feature of an eco-friendly electric boat is not its propulsion, but the ability to produce electricity. For this reason, when sailing, the propellers on the two saildrives aboard Aventura Zero will be continuously producing electricity. In the interest of safety, Aventura Zero will actually have two different propellers aboard: a ServoProp to starboard, which will be very efficient in producing power; and a Gori folding propeller to port, which will be less efficient in producing electricity, but better for propulsion and also more robust in case of a collision. As the ServoProp is highly efficient in generating electricity, I expect it to produce 80 percent of the total output.

Oceanvolt assured me that I could expect an average of 600 watts at 6 knots and 800 watts at 8 knots, which I regarded as reasonable. Sure enough, on the boat’s first test sail, which happened to be in some pretty blustery conditions, we were soon achieving those values and more. In fact, as our speed moved into double figures the ServoProp began charging the batteries at over 2,000 watts, or 2kW, well beyond my highest expectations. When Aventura caught a wave and accelerated to over 14 knots, the figure on the gauge shot up to an impressive 6.9 kW!

Recreating the world’s first circumnav under sail without burning a drop of fuel will require a combination of innovation and cutting-edge design

Recreating the world’s first circumnav under sail without burning a drop of fuel will require a combination of innovation and cutting-edge design

Bottom line, with such a high potential for generating electricity, there is no need for an auxiliary diesel generator. Outremer insisted that I have one as a backup, but I absolutely refused. I would not even agree to having a sealed unit aboard to be used in case of emergency. I am determined to prove that cruising with zero carbon emissions is achievable, as is the possibility of producing a totally self-sufficient electric cruising boat. I have even resolved to forego the use of shore power during stopovers.

Not having a diesel generator is not new to me, having always relied on the main engine for charging. In later years this was supplemented by solar panels, and wind- or hydro-generators. I was once forced to test the sustainability of such a system on my return from the Northwest Passage when the engine failed shortly after leaving Greenland. We managed to sail over 2,000 miles relying entirely on a Sail-Gen hydro-generator that covered all our requirements—autopilot, instruments, communications, electric winches, toilets, even a microwave oven—eventually arriving in England with our batteries fully charged.

Beyond that, because our route will be crossing several ocean regions, I have also put much thought into the sail wardrobe, with the goal of keeping it simple and suitable for the expected conditions. The resulting mainsail and self-tacking Solent jib are both made of HydraNet cloth, and will be supplemented by a Code 0 and Parasailor spinnaker. The rotating mast will improve windward performance and also make reefing easier.

Each of my previous three “Aventuras” had B&G electronics, and the well-tried Zeus3 system will cover all our navigation needs. Besides the standard offshore cruising configuration, B&G has also agreed to use my voyage as a test bed for possible solutions in such common emergency situations as lightning strike, autopilot failure or power blackout. Total autonomy, for example, will be ensured by a separate emergency circuit that is not connected to any of the boat’s networks, and thus is protected in case of a lightning strike. It includes an autopilot processor, ram and rudder sensor, a Triton display unit, GPS and wireless wind sensor. An emergency 1,200 Ah battery, charged by a separate Sail-Gen hydro-generator, will also supply electricity not only to the autopilot and backup instruments but to the service and propulsion batteries if necessary. Ultimately, in addition to the electric propulsion system, Aventura Zero ended up with so many modifications to the basic Outremer model on which it is based that Outremer decided to market the prototype as a new model, the Outremer 4.Zero.

With an expected eight or nine months of voyaging, the yacht must be entirely self sufficient; one of the gauges shows the system producing an impressive 6.9 kW of power (inset)

With an expected eight or nine months of voyaging, the yacht must be entirely self sufficient; one of the gauges shows the system producing an impressive 6.9 kW of power (inset)

Another aim of my voyage is to help put right a persistent wrong. The first circumnavigation of the world continues to be attributed to Ferdinand Magellan. However, the person who should be truly credited with that achievement is Juan Sebastian Elcano, the Basque ship captain who accompanied Magellan and took over leadership of the expedition after Magellan was killed in the Philippines.

The voyage will follow faithfully the historic route, stopping only at places visited by the original expedition. After starting in Seville in late October 2020 we will stop in Tenerife and then sail nonstop to Punta Arenas in the Magellan Strait. (We are avoiding Brazil and the rest of South America because of the Covid-19 situation in that part of the world.) From there, after transiting the strait, we will set off on the long passage to the island of Puka Puka, in the Tuamotus. A stop in Guam will be next before arriving at the mid-point of the voyage at Cebu, in the Philippine Islands. A visit to Mactan, where Magellan was killed in 1521, will conclude the first part of this commemorative journey.

The second part of the voyage will start from the point where Juan Sebastian Elcano took over command of the expedition. Even 500 years after Magellan lost his life there, the situation in the Philippines continues to be uncertain, especially around the island Mindanao in the southern part of the archipelago. To avoid the area, we will therefore sail a safe distance offshore en route to Indonesia. After calling in at Tidore, Ambon and Timor, Aventura Zero will then cross the South Indian Ocean to Cape Town. Having passed the Cape of Good Hope, the route will turn north, cross the equator to Ribeira Grande in the Cape Verde Islands, and finally close the loop in Seville. The 32,000-mile voyage is expected to last eight to nine months, with an ETA in July 2021.

There are three critical areas along that route and tackling them in the right way and at the right time will be a challenging task. The most difficult is the 350-mile long Magellan Strait, where unpredictable katabatic winds, the so-called williwaws, roll off the high-sided cliffs at 40 to 50 knots. I experienced those violent winds on my return with Aventura III from the Antarctic when we barely managed to avoid being blown onto the lee shore with the engine screaming at full power. With 56 kW of combined battery capacity, Aventura Zero will be able to motor for three hours at full power. However, I shall still do my best to avoid being in a similar situation by keeping to the windward side of the strait and being sure to wait in safe anchorages until conditions look right for continuing on. I will also be carrying a spare 55lb Rocna with 55 yards of chain and 110 yards of line, ready to be thrown overboard and hopefully arrest our drift should that ever become necessary.

After that, the other big challenging will be avoiding the cyclone seasons on the two sides of the equator as we cross from the South to the North Pacific on the leg between Puka Puka, in the Tuamotus, to Guam. With cyclones never crossing the equator, should we be threatened by such a storm, we shall keep close to the Line and take whatever avoiding action may be necessary.

As a side note, the name of the voyage I will be making along this historic route on an electric boat with a zero-carbon dioxide footprint was inspired by an uncanny coincidence in a play-on-words on the name of the man who inspired my voyage: EL.CA.NO! ELectricity. Carbon. NO! A good omen for what will be my latest voyage around the world and another true adventure if ever there was one! 


Listen to the Point of SAIL Podcast with Jimmy Cornell, here.

Ed Note: Jimmy Cornell, founder of the ARC transatlantic rally and author of the international bestseller World Cruising Routes, is one of the world’s most famous cruising sailors, with more than 200,000 ocean miles and three circumnavigations to his credit. To learn more about both Cornell and his Elcano Challenge, go to cornellsailing.com. For the latest on Outremer Yachting, go to catamaran-outremer.com

MHS Winter 2020

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