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Velica - Century-old design breaks new ground

Sep 15, 2010

Whether ashore or afloat, form and function are the hallmarks of fine design. This is a concept that legendary yacht designer and sailor Capt. Nathaniel Herreshoff took to heart with his beloved Alerion design. The 26-footer built in 1912 set the bar for beauty and performance in a coastal daysailer, a boat that Herreshoff sailed almost daily.

Today, Alerion Express Sailboats and Pearson Composites of Warren, R.I., continue in that tradition not far from the loft of the “Wizard of Bristol” on the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay with their line of Herreshoff-styled Alerion Express sailboats ranging from 20 to 38 feet.

Although the line has been in production since 1992, like Herreshoff’s creations 100 years earlier, the Alerion Express line breaks new ground with Velica, the newest 33 with an e-propulsion drive system from Mastervolt. The boat embodies not only the design, finish and performance the Alerion sailboats are noted for, but now offers a realistic green alternative to conventional marine diesels.

Built for Vincent Argiro, an environmentally-conscious sailor whose home waters are near Vancouver, B.C., Velica has been fitted with an eco-friendly 7.5-kW electric drive motor from Netherlands-based Bellmann Drive Technology. Argiro has well-defined reasons for having an electric propulsion system in his Alerion. “Sailing is a highly aesthetic pursuit,” Argiro said, “and one of the oldest, most elegant disciplines we humans have. It always seemed horrible to me to have to ignite a smelly, noisy engine at the beginning and the end of a day of great sailing, or when the wind was insufficient.” Argiro was an early adopter of land-based electric drive. “I got seriously interested in e-power by being an early and enthusiastic customer of Tesla Motors on the terrestrial vehicle side. We owned the first Tesla Roadster in B.C. Electric propulsion has so many advantages over internal combustion engines — high efficiency, no flammable fuel on board, no risky fueling, no smell, no pollution, high instantaneous torque, compact size, more flexible placement options, regeneration under sail and more. The only disadvantage on my mind is limited range. But even that is now becoming less significant with with lithium battery technology. So for a boat primarily used for day sailing and racing, there is no reason not to go electric.”

Argiro did extensive research on the principles behind electric propulsion systems as well as exploring a number of alternative vendors before settling on the Mastervolt/Bellmann system. Power for the motor is supplied by a bank of Mastervolt MLI 24/160 lithium-ion batteries through a MasterBus CANbus network. Tailored for marine use, Velica’s lithium-ion batteries are 15 percent more efficient and save up to 70 percent of space and weight when compared to conventional lead-acid boat batteries. While Bellmann specializes in electric saildrive units, Velica’s propeller is actually driven by a straight shaft turning a feathering propeller. The system provides a range of about 20 nm depending on weather, wind and sea conditions and when under sail uses the propeller to re-generate the battery banks. Additional batteries can be added to increase overall range and power. The system is silent and non-polluting and generally enhances the sailing experience without sacrificing the convenience of motor sailing in light wind and dockside maneuvering.

“I get lots of quizzical looks from people in the marina as I glide by in silence while maneuvering,” Argiro said. “Getting into and out of my very tight slip has become easy now, even single handed. The intuitive and instantaneous response of the throttle is perfect in these spots. I can stop the boat on the dock within inches of my target and just step off with line in hand.”

Another unexpected bonus of Velica’s e-propulsion system is what Argiro describes as “equilibrium motor sailing.” He says that when sailing in light air, one can easily add a little throttle and stabilize the forward speed. “When there is a lull in the wind, the motor drives the boat. When a gust comes up, without adjusting the throttle, the motor’s current draw fall first to zero, then reverses as the wind-driven prop spontaneously becomes a hydro-generator.”

Argiro adds that pure motoring for long distances has been easy, too. He says that the range of the boat is sufficient for his needs, but attention must be given to budgeting the battery. He adds that maintaining 4 knots extends the range substantially. “I had the boat built with room to easily double the Mastervolt lithium battery pack (adding only 200 lbs). Eventually, I will probably do this, and then eventually remove the standard AGM house batteries to save further weight.”

But it’s not just about e-power. Under wind power alone, the Alerion 33 is a joy to sail and a head turner on the dock. Argiro, a first-time boat owner claims confidence single-handing Velica in a 20-knot breeze with gusts more than 30. “I sailed 40 nautical miles without a difficult moment; this on a day when one of our club members was dismasted in the same waters.” He is equally pleased with the spaciousness of the cockpit and accommodations.

Could Capt. Nat’s Alerion be improved upon? It may be bold to say, but apparently so. A new, lightweight Alerion, built using modern composites, sails and rigging along with the ability to power along silently, regeneratively and without fossil fuel — the environmental consequences of such a boat just seems to make sense. While it might seem presumptuous, I think that the Wizard of Bristol would be proud of what the Alerion has become.

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