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After major refit, eco-mission is back on

Skipper puts problems behind him and will try again for speed record in the biodiesel-powered Earthrace

Skipper puts problems behind him and will try again for speed record in the biodiesel-powered Earthrace

Undaunted by the perils that foiled his last attempt, Kiwi Pete Bethune will try yet again to set an around-the-world powerboat speed record on his biodiesel-fueled Earthrace, a 78-foot wave-piercing trihull.

“He’s persistent,” says Adrian Erangey, Bethune’s Irish operations manager.

During the 2007 attempt, Earthrace collided with a fishing boat off Guatemala, killing one fisherman and injuring another. Authorities detained boat and crew for 10 days while Earthrace’s insurer negotiated a settlement with the fishermen’s families. The crew also had to put into port to repair a broken heat exchanger and change out props, encountered refueling delays, and finally aborted the effort when the hull cracked in a pounding storm in the Mediterranean.

Earthrace was scheduled to start March 29 off Valencia, Spain, where 20 volunteers had been swarming over the boat to help in a $1 million repair, refit and repower at Vulkan Shipyard. Erangey says most labor, materials and equipment had been donated. “We don’t have a lot of money, which is usual for us,” he says, but an international team of supporters was bringing the boat back to racing trim.

The Batmobile-like trihull has a new pair of 540-hp Cummins MerCruiser diesels, ZK Marine transmissions, fuel lines, props, satellite communications and navigation gear, radar, infrared night-vision equipment and paint job. A Portuguese energy company, SGC Energia, is providing all of the 100 percent biodiesel Earthrace will need for the record attempt and for a postrace European tour.

Erangey estimates the boat will burn 200,000 liters of biodiesel as it attempts to race 24,000 nautical miles westward around the equator, through the Panama and Suez canals, in about 65 days. Another wave-piercer, British Cable and Wireless Adventurer, set the record of 74 days, 23 hours 10 years ago. Earthrace tops out at 40 to 45 knots; it must average 22 knots to make it around in 65 days, he says.

To fend off internecine feuding among “greens,” the boat will run on biodiesel made from recycled vegetable and animal fats so it doesn’t contribute to higher food prices by competing for virgin oils, and it will leave a “carbon-neutral” footprint, Erangey says. An environmental group, down, is helping Earthrace raise money to buy carbon credits and offset carbon dioxide that the team is responsible for releasing into the atmosphere before, during and after the voyage. That includes emissions resulting from team travel, fuel deliveries at stops along the route, and offsets to ensure that production of the biofuel being used is carbon-neutral compared to that of fossil diesel.

Stops along the way will include the Azores; San Juan, Puerto Rico; the Panama Canal; Manzanillo, Mexico; San Diego; Maui, Hawaii; the Marshall Islands; Palau; Singapore; Cochin, India; Oman; the Suez Canal; and back to Valencia.

Erangey says 100,000 visitors toured the boat in Europe, paying $6 apiece. Earthrace will voyage with four crewmembers — Bethune and a navigator, engineer and cameraman — but the organization also is offering berths for $20,000 on a four- or five-day leg and $40,000 on a longer one. It also plans to sell nautical miles along the route on its Web site ( for $10 a mile and send donors a certificate that gets them a boat tour in port and crew autographs.

Whether Earthrace beats the record or not, its purpose is to promote alternative energy. “There’s a lot of biodiesel being manufactured today,” says Erangey. “It’s available, and it is helping [reduce emissions]. We’re pushing that message.”