Among sailboat manufacturers, J/Boats is not known for taking flyers. Instead, the Newport, RI-based firm stays focused on performance boats with slender and slippery hulls, which are not designed for maximum interior space, but swift sailing. They know who they are and what’s in their DNA. Over the past three decades, successful sales have proven J/Boats correct. The J/24, their initial smash hit, has been built more than 6000 times and is still in demand 40 years after launch.
Suffice to say that when such an entrenched yard chooses a new tack, people notice. That’s what happened in September at the Newport International Boat Show, where J/Boats introduced a new version of the J/88 that had been built roughly 80 times since it was introduced in 2013. The latest is equipped with an electrical propulsion system that was developed by the Finnish outfit Oceanvolt and is supplied with power from three renewable sources: Six thin-film (65 micron) solar modules by SolarClothSystem, which are integrated into the mainsail; eight rigid panels on the soft bimini that gets strung across the boom when at anchor or at the dock; and from regeneration which means the folding prop is spinning in neutral while the boat sails, thus becoming a hydro generator.
After the show closed for business J/Boats conducted a demo sail of this simple and straightforward 29-foot racer/cruiser and had to hope for light air to demonstrate the capabilities of this new propulsion system. Along for the ride was Ard Van Leeuwen from Toronto, Ont., a retired software entrepreneur, who only started sailing two years ago on a used Catalina Capri that he fitted with an electric outboard and keeps on Lake Ontario. “I was looking for something in the 30-foot-range that would be more about (sporty) than recreational sailing,” Van Leeuwen said. He also did homework on electric propulsion, which he’s partial to, noting that “Oceanvolt had quickly come to the top of my list”. So the announcement by J/Boats, to offer the J/88 with an Oceanvolt option played into Van Leeuwen’s cards. “My two short lists came together and all that was left was to take a J/88 out and look at a real-world Oceanvolt install.”
The sun was out as requested, but light air was not on the menu. A lively breeze from the Northeast was blowing down Narragansett Bay, forcing the crew to reef down the main, even before the slalom through the densely occupied mooring of Newport Harbor started. Once the anchored cruise ship off Goat Island was abeam, we sheeted in and the numbers on the speedo clicked upward as the J/88 took off in a hurry toward Jamestown. The runnerless rig and the self-tacking jib (unusual for a J) were ideally suited for the conditions, which quite obviously were in the sweet spot for this boat. Even though the headsail had a tad too much camber, because the sheet was attached a notch too high and too far forward on the clew plate, she stoically handled the excess of power. “At one point, we were doing upwards of 7.5 knots close-hauled in choppy water,” Vann Leeuwen reported. “I’d never pointed that high in any boat I’d been on, yet the J/88 felt reassuringly balanced (and) I was able to handle the tiller with my pinky for the most part.”
But somehow this was also about the Oceanvolt system, especially the regenerative charging of the battery while sailing, but that didn’t seem to get going, at least not initially. “The battery is charged up too much,” mumbled Stuart Johnstone, who handles marketing at J/Boats and was eager to demonstrate hydrogeneration as one of the unique selling points of this vessel. After some scrolling on the system monitor below deck, the solution was discovered: Only when there is less than 95 percent charge on the batteries does the regenerative mode kick in automatically. Ironically that forced Johnstone to start up the 6KW-Oceanvolt electric drive in a sturdy breeze to run down the four lithium-iron-manganese batteries manufactured in the U.S. by Valence. The total capacity is 7.1 KW, which according to J/Boats is enough for four hours of operation at approximately five knots of cruising speed or a range of roughly 20 nautical miles. After about 10 minutes of motorsailing, the batteries were sufficiently depleted, so the motor was turned off and put into neutral. And immediately the prop started spinning with a quiet hum, thus returning the consumed power to the batteries. Proof of this process was rendered behind the engine controls by a small system monitor that was difficult to read under the glare of direct sunlight, but which, when shaded with a cap, clearly showed a small propeller symbol and the charge of the battery.
“An efficient hull that also performs well in lighter air is helpful for regeneration,” Johnstone said. “Equally important is the axial design of the motor, that was specifically optimized for this mode, which is not necessarily true for other electric motors.” The precise answer to the question of how much electric energy can be generated in this fashion is still largely based on calculations, not on a broad set of empirical values. But Johnstone estimates that regeneration can produce 300 to 400 watts per hour at five knots of boat speed. A sustained speed of 8.5 to nine knots, which is well within range of a boat like the J/88, could generate up to one KW per hour. Alas, the UK mainsail with the thin-film modules was not yet connected to the system, so there was no way of checking their charging contribution. But according to J/Boats, it should be in the neighborhood of 500 watts per hour or 75 watts per installed square meter (11 square feet) of solar film, while the solar bimini could add up to 650 watts per hour with proper insolation.
“I found the Oceanvolt sail drive install to be compact, clean, lightweight and accessible,” Van Leeuwen said. “It’s not silent, but it’s quieter than diesel. It’s also lower maintenance and more reliable. Electric propulsion is still relatively new and customers, dealers and sailboat manufacturers are still skeptical if not outright indifferent about it.” But he denies that range is a drawback, at least not for him. “With shore power, solar power and underway hydro regeneration to choose from, battery charging is hardly a concern anymore for me.” Capacity concerns could easily be addressed with a portable fuel-powered generator to match or surpass a diesel engine’s range.
However, this did not appear to make a lot of sense on the J/88, at least not on the boat we tested which was set up for cruising with V-berth and toilet in the forecabin, but had no big house loads to sap the batteries and pose a real challenge to the charging capacity. And because of the breeze there was no need to turn for the engine, which is why the batteries were already at or above 95 percent when Johnstone slowly guided the boat back to her mooring right off the New York Yacht Club after the sails were struck. “It has to be simple and easy to handle so the boat gets used,” he said before encouraging the crew to flake the solar mainsail onto the boom as they’d flake any other old Dacron main, which indeed went off without any drama.
You don’t have to be a fanatic enemy of CO2 emissions to appreciate the Oceanvolt option. Racing sailors also might find it interesting, because, J/Boats says, it comes with a weight savings of approximately 150 pounds compared to the standard 14-hp diesel. The bitter pill however, is the $20,000 surcharge, which can be even higher, depending on how much battery capacity the owner desires.
But in the end, Van Leeuwen hinted, it was not all that fancy technology that influenced his decision to break out the checkbook, but the fundamentals. “What sold me on the J/88 Oceanvolt option was that it was by far the better sail boat.”
For more info on the J/88 model, read our 2013 review of the J/88 or watch our first-sail video.
|Sail Area||439 sq. ft.|
|Fuel capacity||15 gal.|
|Water capacity||5 gal.|