One Cool Cat

A week in the British Virgin Islands aboard an all-electric catamaran leaves a crew completely amped
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Imagine sailing through the British Virgin Islands for a week and never picking up a bag of ice to chill the beer, never pulling up to a dock to fill the water tanks and burning so little diesel that the charter company doesn’t even charge a fuel fee. Now imagine powering the fridges, the freezer, the icemaker, the water maker, the water heater and the air conditioning without hearing a generator. Then, imagine gliding silently into harbors on electric motors, taking hot showers, lighting up the boat from the masthead to well below the waterline, and never worrying about  energy consumption or the carbon footprint. All while other boaters across the water literally say, “How come our boat doesn’t do that?”

It may sound impossible, but we experienced all of the above while sailing aboard what Voyage Charters says is the first all-electric bareboat charter catamaran in the world. For a week, my wife, Jeanne-Marie, and I, with the help of our friends Scott, Trude, Pat and Rich, ran the Voyage Electric 480 Electrified through its paces as we sailed around the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Electrified runs on an energy and propulsion package from Finland’s Oceanvolt, which designs power packages for dozens of boatbuilders. Built by Voyage Yachts in Cape Town, South Africa, the 48-footer has a 48-volt, 35-kWh lithium-ion battery bank that is recharged by 16 solar panels, propeller-generated energy and a virtually silent 22-kW diesel generator.

Electrified at The Dogs

Electrified at The Dogs

We arrived at Voyage Charters’ Soper’s Hole base well after dark, but it was easy to spot Electrified, She was awash in blue LEDs with a half-dozen tarpon patrolling beneath the boat. We stowed our bags, ate dinner and turned in for the night.

The next morning, we met Voyage Charters Sales Manager Peter Jones who told us of the damage Hurricane Irma had done to the base in 2017. All of the company’s 30 boats had been damaged. One boat had landed on top of a nearby building, the docks were destroyed, and all of the company’s buildings had been flooded. Eventually, 15 of the boats were declared total losses.

Trude at Leverick Bay

Trude at Leverick Bay

It had been a year and a half since Irma and Hurricane Maria had come through, but Voyage now had a new concrete dock, cheerfully painted buildings and a sleek, modern office. With 18 boats, five of them new, including Electrified, Voyage Charters is looking to the future. They already have their first Voyage Electric 590 under construction in South Africa and they hope to create an all-electric fleet. “We believe these boats are going to catch on,” Peter said.

The women take the helm

The women take the helm

For our briefing we were joined by Operations Manager Rane Downing who went into greater detail on the boat’s systems. Rane told us that Electrified’s air conditioning could run all day on battery power alone, needing only 700 watts on start-up and just 150 watts to maintain the boat’s temperature.

After finishing our briefing, we cast off and motored through a squall to Norman Island where we picked up a mooring in a quiet cove just northwest of the Bight. Pat and Rich launched the paddleboards while Scott and I lowered the dinghy so Trude, Jeanne and Scott could go ashore for a hike. Electrified’s ingenious boom extension, which eliminates the need for davits, made it easy to raise and lower the dinghy.

On the ride in to the beach, we could see what Hurricane Irma had left of the Willie-T, the party barge now beached deep in the sand. In its absence, we all met for painkiller cocktails at the rebuilt Pirate’s Bight. Our first day ended on Electrified’s stern with a dinner of BVI sausage, Nicoise salad and a chilled sauvignon blanc while Aretha Franklin’s smooth voice wafted from the boat’s stereo. Before the charter, I told the crew that we would need to conserve energy and water. That plan was instantly abandoned. Because of Electrified’s many luxurious features, we spent the remainder of the week shamelessly abusing our newly discovered resources.

It began with the water supply. Water makers are standard on all Voyage Yachts. By pushing one button, we could start the 110-volt Sea R.O. desalinator and replenish our two 50-gallon tanks in about two hours. We washed dishes and showered like we were living next to a Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir. The boat’s electric water heater was fast and hot. We never suffered from a shortage of hot water, except one time when my wife took a shower before I had turned on the heater. Our water consumption bordered on the obscene.

On the mooring at the Baths.

On the mooring at the Baths.

We spent the week in blissful luxury, eating great food, enjoying water activities, sampling the boat’s technologies and testing Electrified’s sailing abilities. After a morning of snorkeling at the Indians and lunch at Peter Island’s Great Harbour (near the new Willie-T) we had a late arrival at Cooper Island, where Pat snagged the pendant on an open mooring. While having drinks ashore at Cooper Island Beach Club the bartender told us the buildings had survived Irma and that the grounds had been newly landscaped.

Scott serves up gourmet snacks.

Scott serves up gourmet snacks.

By now, Scott, a serious foodie with professional kitchen experience, had ensconced himself in front of Electrified’s Italian-made stove and oven, where he whipped up gourmet meals. With two stainless-steel sinks facing forward, and the cold box and two refrigerator drawers to starboard, he was loving the layout and counter space. He also found lots of sharp knives, which addressed one of his personal pet peeves about other people’s galleys.

Despite long hours as our “galley slave,” Scott was never far removed from the rest of us. The sliding glass door to the aft deck allowed him to remain part of the conversations, and the panoramic windows provided a constant view of the islands and water around him. 

“I dig this galley,” Scott said. “Clearly, it wasn’t an afterthought, and you can’t beat the view.” 

In exchange, the rest of the crew was more than happy to do all the dishes. It didn’t hurt that the Vitrifrigo icemaker cranked out ice so quickly that we had enough to keep the Red Stripes in the cooler on the stern cold and still have plenty of cubes left over for everyone’s cocktails.

I wanted to get to the Baths early the next morning to pick up a mooring, but if there’s one thing my wife doesn’t care for, it’s an overly eager captain who interrupts her vacation slumber by firing up the diesels at 6 a.m. Now, Electrified’s silent propulsion really came in handy. Just after sunrise, Scott and I dropped the mooring at Cooper Island and, using the Oceanvolt SD15 saildrives, quietly slipped out of the harbor. We found an open ball right off the beach in front of the Baths, had a leisurely breakfast and swam ashore, where we spent a couple of hours exploring the pools and boulder formations.

That afternoon, in 20 knots of wind, Electrified showed us her sailing chops. Going upwind, she sliced through the oncoming swells, clocking 13 knots over the ground. At times, the leeward bow threw water over the hardtop, but none of us felt like the boat couldn’t handle the seas. My wife is not a thrill-seeker, and all of us, including Trude, a first-time charterer who’d had some reservations about going on the trip, loved it.

On previous charters, my wife has always liked the space on cruising cats, but she has never been impressed with their sailing performance. On those earlier trips, she usually preferred to read a book or do yoga. But on Electrified, her yoga mat never made it out of the stateroom. For the entire week, when asked what she wanted to do that day, the answer always was: “Let’s go sailing.”

Dishwashing in the galley.

Dishwashing in the galley.

When the wind speed hit 24 knots, I decided it was time to reduce sail. Pat and Rich put a reef in the main and, using the electric furler, hauled in some headsail. At 10 to 11 knots, we zigzagged our way upwind, Electrified tacking easily and accelerating out of the turns like a dinghy.

Rich checks out Irma damage

Rich checks out Irma damage

The Voyage 480s are performance cats. When one owner sails his 480, Voyage Charters rigs her with a fathead main and a screecher, which are certain to deliver an even fiercer ride. The 480 first came on the scene in 2015, and Electrified is the 14th hull. The boats are light for their size at 22,990 pounds, and they are built for ocean voyaging. They are delivered to the Virgin Islands on their own bottoms from South Africa, where Voyage Yachts builds all its cats, including a 65-foot power cat.

While moored at Leverick Bay Resort & Marina, Scott and I heard an unfamiliar sound. We looked at each other quizzically and then realized the generator had kicked in. It was the first time we’d heard it in three days.

Because of an optional installation kit that places the raw-water exhaust below the waterline, Electrified’s 22-kW Fischer Panda generator is almost silent. It was so quiet that Scott and I spent the week lifting the hatch to the generator or looking over the port rail, to see if it was actually running. Later in the week, Trude encountered another boat’s generator and when she heard the sound asked, “What is that?” Unaware that not all generators are created equal, she and Scott spent a sleepless night listening to a neighbor’s run-of-the-mill machine.

Scott reels in the barracuda.

Scott reels in the barracuda.

Fascinated by the technology, I spent a lot of time at the nav station’s Victron display monitoring the boat’s energy production and consumption. I never saw the solar panels hit 1.6 kW—the boom usually obscured one or more panels—but one day they produced 1.3 kW, and usually produced at least 1 kW around midday. Between the generator and the solar panels and occasional propeller regeneration, the whole energy-production system worked so efficiently that we never lacked for anything.

The barracuda on the stern

The barracuda on the stern

Cocktails in the cockpit.

Cocktails in the cockpit.

On day three, after my wife’s birthday massage at the local spa, we motored to Eustatia Sound for some snorkeling. When we passed the Bitter End Yacht Club and saw what Irma had done to Saba Rock, my wife and I were stunned. Twelve years earlier, we had enjoyed a raucous family dinner at one of its restaurants. Now there was just a rock. Irma had swept it clean. Construction barges and crews were building a new concrete foundation. Rich, who’d never seen the Bitter End, put it into perspective: “The BVI may be recovering, but it’s still beautiful.”

Rich and Pat enjoy the bow.

Rich and Pat enjoy the bow.

By midweek, we had only used the boat’s regenerative propellers once. We deployed the three-bladed Gori folding propellers from the helm while under sail and generated electricity for the batteries. When unfolded, Oceanvolt says that under optimal conditions the props can generate as much as 2 kW—more than the solar panels.

But the props and motors could also be used for what Rane called “watt sailing.” We tried it going downwind under jib alone at about 7 knots. By playing with the throttles we found that at about 600 rpm, the system would generate about 100 watts more than it was using. It was a kick to see that we could use the electric motors to help propel the boat while also making more energy. Had we done it upwind with the main up, the additional water flowing beneath the hull would have generated a lot more than 100 watts per engine.

That night, we moored at Marina Cay where we celebrated my wife’s birthday and found that Electrified’s stern was more than large enough for a dance party. Out of concern for our neighbors, we turned off the Bose speakers on the lower spreaders, but it was probably a good thing that we were downwind from the other boats.

When sailing the British Virgin Islands, a dip at the Baths is not to be missed.

When sailing the British Virgin Islands, a dip at the Baths is not to be missed.

The next day, after anchoring at Great Camanoe’s Lee Bay for breakfast, we made a downwind run to Jost Van Dyke. Using just the jib to keep our speed down for trolling, Scott jumped to the rod and reeled in a 30-inch barracuda. We’d hoped for a mahi-mahi for dinner, but aware that many local barracudas have ciguatera and can cause a bad case of food poisoning, we opted to release him. Fortunately, he’d been lip-hooked. As I pulled our toothy friend aboard, he obliged me by shaking off the hook and falling onto the starboard swim platform where we shot some pictures and then let him wriggle back into the sea.

Electrified’s solar panels charge the batteries. LOA: 49’ 5” / Beam: 25’2” / Draft: 3’ 6” / Displ.: 22,990 lbs. / Power: (2) Oceanvolt Servoprop 15 saildrives / Fuel: 106 gals. / Water: 100 gals. / Berths: 10 / Base price: $572,000

Electrified’s solar panels charge the batteries. LOA: 49’ 5” / Beam: 25’2” / Draft: 3’ 6” / Displ.: 22,990 lbs. / Power: (2) Oceanvolt Servoprop 15 saildrives / Fuel: 106 gals. / Water: 100 gals. / Berths: 10 / Base price: $572,000

At Jost Van Dyke’s Great Harbour we checked out the church, which had lost its roof to Irma’s storm surge. We then hiked to White Beach and Ivan’s Stress Free Bar, where we hid in the shack’s shade, ate fried plantains and washed them down with cold beer. We also paid homage to the Soggy Dollar Bar before heading back to Foxy’s.

The next morning, with our last day upon us, Rich sailed us to Sandy Spit where we anchored close enough to swim to the picture-perfect beach. When we finally returned to Soper’s Hole after 5 p.m., I half-joked with Peter that we had considered sailing off to more distant destinations and informed him how Electrified was already causing a buzz among BVI boaters. At every harbor, sailors had quizzed us.

The crew enjoys Ivan’s Stress Free Bar.

The crew enjoys Ivan’s Stress Free Bar.

At Jost Van Dyke, a cruiser in a dinghy had asked us if it was true that Electrified could make fresh water without starting the generator. When we confirmed it could, he’d responded in mock rage and yelled, “That’s B.S.!” It made us all laugh. And when the driver of the same dinghy asked us how we liked “the electric boat,” we all exclaimed in unison, “We love it!”

The boat’s propellers can generate energy

The boat’s propellers can generate energy

And it was true. In addition to all the advanced technologies, we had come to appreciate Electrified’s smallest details. From the individually zoned speakers to the latch on the frosted shower door to the USB ports on both sides of the bunks to the mattresses that were more comfortable than our beds at home, we’d all fallen under the electric cat’s spell.

The next morning, as we sipped our coffee on the aft deck before a water taxi took us back to St. Thomas, my wife said, “I’m worried we’ve been ruined. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to enjoy another boat again.” We all agreed. We’d been electrified.

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.