When Dave and Danielle Baker and their two young children pull up to a marina and begin maneuvering into a slip, they often get wondering stares from people on the dock. Instead of emitting diesel exhaust and noise, their Island Packet 27 sloop Gilbert Ivy purrs quietly and handles as precisely as it might if it still had its Yanmar auxiliary. Inevitably, dock walkers approach to help with lines and ask the Bakers what kind of propulsion they use. Dave tells them they have repowered their boat with an electric inboard.
“It happens so often that I decided to make a video rather than retell the story dockside,” Dave says. “I got 21,000 views over just the first few weeks.”
When Dave and Danielle met about 10 years ago, sailing was his longtime passion but she knew nothing about it. He taught her to sail on his trailerable Com-Pac 16 sloop in the Atlantic waters near the Kennedy Space Center, about halfway up Florida’s East Coast. It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.
They bought their first big boat in 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, although that was not a primary factor in moving up. “We just happened to stumble on this 1988 Island Packet 27 in a marina. It looked like it was abandoned,” Dave says. “The sun-baked sails were loosely affixed to the mast and boom, and it looked pretty sad.” They eventually located the owner and bought the boat.
“Luckily, it needed just a few minor fixes, including new motor mounts. Suddenly, we were cruising up and down the coast, from St. Augustine to the Keys.”
Dave is a mechanical engineer by trade, but the bulk of his work is electro-mechanical as he mainly designs circuitry and electrical systems. It was sort of inevitable that he would begin thinking about converting the Island Packet 27 to electrical power. “We love the classic look of our boat, but when I saw the exhaust soot on the transom it really bothered me,” Dave says.
He figured he needed a 10-kilowatt system to replace the output of the 18-hp Yanmar diesel that came as standard propulsion for the 8,000-pound, deep-keel hull. His research into suitable motors and components got more focused when he decided he needed a controller that would allow power generation under sail alone, with the spinning propeller recharging his batteries. It took him about a year to complete the project, which included designing and installing components like the 48-volt battery pack and a solar panel system for additional recharging.
He evaluated several engine and component suppliers and settled on Thunderstruck because he was able to easily customize the installation—everything from a specific gear ratio to the physical dimensions of the motor and controller, which had to fit the engine compartment. For tips on installation, Dave went looking for information in places like Facebook, where there was a helpful group of electric sailboat owners,
Before he could begin his conversion, Dave needed to remove the Yanmar diesel. “I had a number of people express an interest in buying the engine, but I really wanted to find someone who would remove it properly,” Dave says. “So I made a deal with marina mechanics I trusted. They pulled the diesel safely and with minimal damage to the boat. I gave them the motor. Totally worth it.”
In a sun-drenched environment like Florida, Dave estimates he could cruise Gilbert Ivy all day under motor alone if he kept the boat speed at 3 to 4 knots. If he cruised in more northern latitudes, he admits that there would be temperature challenges and solar regeneration times to consider for the batteries. “There are a lot of naysayers who think electric is not the safest way to go,” Dave says, “but it’s important to find the right place and the right circumstances.”
The Bakers cruised sans diesel through 2022. They haven’t made any long trips yet, but they have gone north to destinations like New Smyrna Beach under electric power alone, proving the concept and the installation. In 2023, they want to move the boat to Florida’s west coast. In the not-too-distant future, they might set their course for a year in the Florida Keys and, eventually, the Bahamas.
This article was originally published in the January 2023 issue.