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Cruise past the gas dock- Baby Boomers Part 2

The self-sufficient Independence 60 creates the fuel that keeps her going from sunlight and sea water

With diesel topping $4 a gallon, the idea of an all-electric yacht that draws its energy from sun and water looks better all the time. Fred Berry, the engineer who conceived the Independence 60, says most people he talks to give him a thumbs-up for the innovative design of this 21st century yacht, but no one has yet plunked down $2.5 million to have one built.

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Berry debuted the design on paper at February’s Miami International Boat Show, where his patent-pending technology breathed some fresh air into a show where combustion rules. Fossil-fuel-free, emissions-free, effluent-free — the full-displacement trawler will have no internal combustion engines and no electric generators, only twin 75-kW electric motors powered by solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells.

“There will be no fossil fuels at all on board,” says Berry, 48, of Cockeysville, Md. Even the dinghy’s outboard will be electric.

A U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served on nuclear submarines, Berry has been working on Independence for three years, ever since he noticed that many pleasure boats on Chesapeake Bay — his home waters — sit at the dock all week and go out on the weekend. That got him thinking about using all that time at the dock to store up free, renewable energy from the sun to use on weekends. Berry borrowed a key idea for his power plant from the electrolytic generators on submarines, which break down water into hydrogen and oxygen, and vent the hydrogen while keeping the oxygen for underwater life support under way.

During the week, when Independence is at the dock, solar panels on the flybridge and aft cabin hardtops collect sunlight and turn it into electricity to run the electrolytic generator. Instead of venting the hydrogen it produces, Independence’s generator vents the oxygen and stores the hydrogen. It then feeds it as needed to a fuel cell, where it is combined again with oxygen from the air, producing pure water and a flow of loose electrons (DC electricity) that runs through inverters to operate the AC motors and a full complement of electric appliances (air conditioning, televisions, water heater, hot tub, washer/dryer, heads and full galley with freezer, refrigerator, microwave and cooktop range).

The hydrogen isn’t stored under pressure but in metal hydride canisters, which store it by letting the hydrogen attach itself to the metal. “Even if the canister cracks, nothing happens,” Berry says. “The hydrogen doesn’t evaporate. It doesn’t explode.” It remains adhered to the metal.

Berry, who until recently worked for air conditioner manufacturer York designing energy-saving variable-speed drives for enormous units in stadiums and other commercial venues, says he has engineered Independence to be self-sufficient and green in every respect. It draws its power from the sun. It gets water for the electrolytic generator from surrounding waters — fresh or salt. It collects oxygen from the air for recombining with hydrogen in the fuel cell. The only effluents from the power plant are pure water, released from the fuel cells, and oxygen produced by the electrolytic generator. Gray and black water are stored in tanks for pumpout shoreside. Both the yacht (hull, superstructure and hardtops) and dinghy are built of aluminum, and the dink’s electric outboard runs on rechargeable batteries.

Independence’s submersible electric motors (with 5-blade props) are encapsulated in “azimuthing” pods that rotate on a horizontal axis so the boat can be steered without rudders. The yacht should reach a top speed of 13 knots on its long (60 feet), slender (14-foot beam) displacement hull, but it will operate most efficiently at slower speeds, Berry says. It has a 600-nautical-mile range at 8 knots and 1,200-nautical-mile range at 6 knots — at night and with a full load of hydrogen in its canisters, he says.

Independence can run on stored hydrogen alone, on solar power alone (6 knots top speed on a sunny day), or on a combination of solar power and hydrogen, Berry says. A large battery bank that can be charged directly from the solar array or fuel cell can power the propulsion and house loads if all the hydrogen is used up. The boat can be plugged into shore power to run the appliances — always an option when overnighting at a marina — or to recharge the batteries and hydrogen canisters, if necessary.

Robb Ladd, an Annapolis, Md., designer of sportfishermen and bluewater sailboats, designed the Independence 60. Maritime Applied Physics, a Baltimore yard that builds high-tech aluminum boats for the Navy, will build her, and Larry Belkov, an Annapolis craftsman who does a lot of interior work on custom sportfishermen, will finish the yacht.

The Independence 60 is a luxury yacht, says John Mann, Berry’s partner. “Our objective has been not to have it look like a science project,” he says. The science, though sophisticated, isn’t new. This is just a new application, he says. In fact a teacher’s home at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., uses a nearly identical system of stored hydrogen generated by solar-powered electrolysis to supply all its electricity. “For air conditioning, entertainment, cooking, cleaning, refrigeration — everything,” he says.

The system is not for boats that go out every day, rain or shine, Berry says. It is for weekend boaters and for cruisers who spend a lot of time in anchorages and don’t keep to a schedule. They’ll have to be willing to sit tight sometimes after a spate of cloudy days to let the solar panels recharge the hydrogen canisters.

Berry wants to eventually bring the technology down to 40-foot boats so it is affordable to more people. Meanwhile, he hopes the green yacht will strike a chord among boaters, many of whom he sees sitting at the dock these days instead of cruising because of the high cost of gasoline and diesel fuel.

“Wouldn’t it be great to jump ahead of the automotive industry on this?” he says.

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