DIY Electric Outboard

All this time in lockdown has me scheming up new ideas, and I keep finding myself coming back to one – the electric outboard.

We absolutely loved our experience cruising and the South Pacific on renewable energy.  It’s clearly the best option for the frugal sailor on a limited budget.

In the interest of continued improvement, I have been reflecting back  on our experience and trying to identify areas that could use improvement.

The Sailor’s “Car”

dinghies

The dinghy is vital to all cruising sailors. It’s how you get to and from shore to get supplies. It’s also how you get out and explore the areas around you, areas where the mothership just can’t go.

When we were gearing up for our voyage, we were looking for a good sailing/rowing dinghy that kept to our renewable energy, low carbon footprint mantra. Tinkerbelle was our solution.

Tink is an old Tinker Tramp, an inflatable sailing dinghy that was made in the UK. Tink rolls up and stows on deck and came with an optional life raft kit, she is perfect for a small voyaging yacht like ours.

Tinker Tramp Sailing

Unfortunately, Tinker is no longer in business, but there are many small roll up or take-apart dinghies available on the market. As with all dinghies, they don’t move themselves! If you want to check out that beach two miles away, you have to get there somehow.

Being broke, young, and full of vigor, our solution has mainly been a set of oars. Over the last three years I came to find myself enjoying the art of rowing. My back stayed strong, and oarlocks can be found or jury rigged pretty much anywhere.

The downside?

Just try to convince yourself to row for miles when you are already standing on a perfectly beautiful beach.

Our limited range kept us from snorkeling passes and exploring those farther off places, unless we joined friends who had a dinghy with a powerful outboard.

THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY

Enter the Electric Outboard

Torqeedo Travel 1103 C Outboard Motor w/ FREE Travel Bag Set – Wee ...

We have seen a few small Torqeedo outboards during our travels, but none of the cruisers we met were in love with them. They are light, maintenance free, and packable, what’s not to love?

THEY WON’T GET YOUR DINGHY ON A PLANE!

Simple as that.

We want to go fast! Forget that we don’t have to row. Forget that there is no maintenance. Forget that you never have to carry gasoline. Forget that you never have trouble starting it. It’s hard to brag about all of these positives when you are wallowing in the wake of the neighbor’s dinghy that ripped right past you.

What’s on the Market?

There are companies offering more powerful products. Elco, Torqeedo and ePropulsion all have offerings that can get a tender on a plane. They appear to be quality, well designed systems, but I haven’t actually seen any of them around. Unfortunately, they are all outside of our budget.

On the cheap end, you can find offerings from Aliexpress, Karvin, and Golden Motor. But based on their websites, I can’t reason sending them upwards of a thousand of dollars with my fingers crossed.

If anyone is willing to donate one of the above to us, we will happily test it and do a full review

Project Outline

Build an electric outboard for small, folding inflatable dinghies. Ideally, the outboard will fit Tinkerbelle and get her planeing for an hour or more on a single battery charge. As with Cinderella’s Manta Drive, it must be affordable to the budget sailor and robust enough to handle cruising in remote locations. I also want to build my own LiFePO4 battery bank that will supply power to the motor. The system must charge easily from our current solar panels and I’d like to test the feasibility of using the outboard as a hydro generator.

Goals

  • Power – enough to drive a small inflatable on a plane for over and hour
  • Reliability – use robust components to mitigate failure
  • Affordability – cost less than a new gasoline outboard
  • Ease of Charge – must be easy to easily charged from Cinderella’s current system
  • Hydrogeneration – determine feasibility as a yacht hydro generator.

Parts List/Cost Breakdown

Outboard
Donor outboard engine $0
Montenergy ME1716 Motor $600
Roboteq Motor Controller $345
Contactor $50
Breaker $50
Throttle $50
Fuse Holder $20
Safety Kill Switch $35
48V – 5V DC-DC converter $16
Misc wires/connectors $50
Total $1,216
Battery
Roboteq BMS $495
Breaker $50
60Ah LiFePO4 cells $880
Misc wires/connectors $50
Case $100
Total $1,575
Outboard and Battery $2,791

I’m hoping we can see the performance similar to that of a conventional 5 HP outboard. A brand new Tohatsu 5 HP retails at around $1800. While our project will cost about twice that, I’m hoping that we see the ROI in the form of free fuel (from the sun) and lack of maintenance.

Donate

As with the Manta Drive, we will share our experience while making the plans free and open source. If you want to help speed the project along, please consider donating to our cause!

DIY Marine Onboard Network

B&G, PLEX, KODI, ODROID, tindie, OPENCPN

NERD ALERT! NERD ALERT! NERD ALERT!

We have been cruising for a full year now! After a year of cruising, you really get a chance to dial in your systems and realize which projects on that endless list are most important and which ones can wait until the next major port.

One that keeps rearing up its head is deep in that dark world of…IT.

From ship navigation systems, to where you store all of those priceless photos it a boils down to a mess of wires all a bunch of 0s and 1s. Can/should it all be linked?

Most cruisers spend lots of time far away from WiFi and even farther from our precious Netflix. Yet we all crave a bit of digital entertainment from time to time, and let’s be honest, where would we be without music on those long passages.

What we plan to do aboard Cinderella is create an onboard wifi network with a dedicated media server. The server will house all of our music, videos, TV shows, movies, and photos. Along with a dedicated media server, we will update our navigation computer and tie it to our ship instruments. The end result will be something like this.

I know, I know, it looks like a lot. But we, along with pretty much all of the boats we have met cruising already have most of the gear!

Let’s start from the top. What I called the Marine Sensor Network. The Marine Sensor Network alone can cost thousands of dollars to replace. Cinderella came with an old KVH system installed in the late 90s. The Airmar sensors still work, but all of our marine displays have since fried. One wave off the Washington coast a one year ago decided we didn’t need them.

Although it may look complicated, it’s actually quite simple. All of our instruments were designed for the NMEA 0183 standard. This standard was created in the marine industry so that different instrumentation could talk with each other. NMEA 0183 is an old standard that requires a separate channel for each input. Basically, if you wanted to interface four instruments to you computer, you would need four separate connections. It can be done, but if we use something called a multiplexer we can funnel all of the instruments through one channel to the PC.

In our situation, using a multiplexer is nice because we can also feed this NMEA information to our autopilot giving us the option to steer by the wind angle, rather than just compass direction. The NMEA multiplexer we purchased was from Quark-electric and was $144.

We purchased it while we were in Mexico, and have yet to install it. Hopefully, this project will re-ignite my drive to have ship instruments again.

Where are we so far?

We used a device called a NMEA Multiplexer to compile inputs from all of our sensors and eventually feed it to our navigation computer or what some people like to call a chartplotter. A chartplotter is basically an expensive, basic “marinized” computer that plots your boats location on a chart. Think Tom-Tom for the water. The difference between Tom-Tom and a chart plotter is usually at least crisp cool boat unit ($1000).

On Cinderella we have come to realize that marine instruments, no matter how waterproof they seem to be, aren’t. Water will eventually find it’s way inside, killing the expensive chartplotter and leaving you in a pickle. We opted instead to utilize a program called OpenCPN to handle our chartplotting needs.

OpenCPN is FREE software designed by boaters that allows you to turn any computer into a chartplotter. The perk here is that ANY computer you have onboard can now be used as a backup navigation computer after you install the application. Every computer we have onboard has it installed, though we only rely one when we are on passage. Being that it is computer based, you still have that pesky water problem to deal with.

We get around the water issue by leaving the navigation computer in the cabin at all times. As part of this ship system upgrade, we will relieve our trusty Microsoft Surface from chartplotter duty and build a custom, cheap, and watertight navigation computer.

There are, in our opinion, three basic requirements of all navigation computers. One, the computer must know where YOU are. Two, it must know where the boats around you are. Three, it must not draw too much power.

Nowadays, these basic requirements are pretty easy to satisfy. To tell the computer where we are, we have been using a cheap USB GPS dongle. We carry two in case one gets hit by water. Here is a link the the one we use on Amazon, it’s about $30.

To tell us where other boats are, we use an AIS receiver that receives signal from our mast mounted VHF antenna. In order to use both the VHF and AIS with a single antenna, we needed to install a splitter. Anyone who remembers the days of clunky color TVs might remember what a splitter looks like. Here is the one we have installed onboard Cinderella, it was about $70.

We really liked the Microsoft Surface for use as our navigation computer. It has a large touch screen monitor, it has a nice fold down keyboard and a neat bluetooth mouse. Unfortunately, that wave that killed our marine instruments also got to our Surface, and ever since it takes a little TLC to start it up and keep it going. It had a hard year, and it’s time we come up with something new to replace it. We are currently looking at simple 12V computers like the RasberryPi or Odroid. They are both small, low power, and can be sealed into a watertight box and stowed in a small cabinet.

Along with the computer, we will need to find a low draw 12V monitor and a simple bluetooth keyboard and mouse, but I believe the new navigation PC could be had for $200-$300.

So now we have our boat instruments connected to our navigation computer, but one major piece remains. The media! What about the music/TV shows/movies? The last piece of the upgrade is the NAS or Network Attached Storage server. What we will call the Cinderella Cloud.

The Cinderella cloud will be essentially made up of three pieces, a hard drive (where the media will live), a NAS server (means to organize the media), and a router (means to share the media with all of our devices).

We have had a small router onboard since before we left Seattle. I read a cruising blog a long time ago and decided to purchase a WiFi extender so that I could pick up WiFi at the marina from far away. Along with the WiFi extender, I purchased a 12V router to allow all of my devices to utilize that WiFi.

We plan to buy a 12V NAS server from Odroid, and pair it with a large capacity, low draw hard drive.

These hardware components don’t mean very much alone, but with the help of neat media software (Plex or Kodi), we should be able to connect to the Cindy Cloud and scroll through all of our movies, TV shows, or music at any time from any device and stream away. It will be like our own little onboard Netflix!

If everything goes to plan, we should have an entire onboard network integrating marine instruments, a navigation computer, and a media server, all for less than the cost of a standard chartplotter!