Biodiesel ‘Batboat’ is touring the U.S. - Soundings Online

Biodiesel ‘Batboat’ is touring the U.S.

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The pioneering 78-foot Earthrace will make a run at the around-the-world speed record

The pioneering 78-foot Earthrace will make a run at the around-the-world speed record

It is becoming known in U.S. ports as simply “the Batboat.”

After a 6,000-mile Pacific crossing to Vancouver, British Columbia, Pete Bethune’s 78-foot biodiesel-powered Earthrace was working its way down the U.S. West Coast late this summer. Bethune, 41, a New Zealand oil field engineer gone “green,” planned to transit the Panama Canal for an East Coast tour, transit the St. Lawrence Seaway, visit the Great Lakes, and cruise down the Mississippi River for an appearance at the Feb. 15 to 19 Miami International Boat Show. Then he wants to attempt a westward around-the-world speed record of 65 days running Earthrace on pure biodiesel processed from vegetable oils and animal fats. The current powerboat record for a 24,000-mile circumnavigation is 75 days, set in 1998 by the 115-foot British wave-piercer Cable & Wireless Adventure.

Earthrace’s sharp, wave-piercing entry, delta shape and wings that rise high over the deck to serve as engine air intakes give the carbon fiber and Kevlar boat the look of a seaborne Batmobile, thus its nickname. So far it has proven to be an “unbelievable boat,” said Bethune by phone from San Francisco, where he put in at Fisherman’s Wharf for a few days.

Earthrace weathered 60-knot winds and punched through 40-foot seas in New Zealand’s Cook Straits. It held up fine on the 6,000-mile Pacific crossing. Its twin 540-hp Cummins MerCruiser diesels didn’t even hiccup on the biodiesel, a “green” fuel that is renewable and produces on average 78 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than standard petroleum diesel, says Bethune. Its 2,500-gallon fuel tanks give the powerboat a 3,000-mile range.

Bethune says he fueled up with animal fat-based biodiesel in New Zealand, refueled with animal fat in Samoa, took on recycled and processed cooking and canola oils in Maui, Hawaii, animal fat in Vancouver, and soy biodiesel in Seattle and San Francisco. Imperium Renewable, a Seattle-based company backed by billionaire software developer Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures and others, supplied the biodiesel in Seattle. Imperium plans to start building a biodiesel refinery — the country’s largest at 100 million gallons a year — in Gray’s Harbor, Wash., this fall. Bullish on biodiesel, Imperium is projecting that the fuel can compete with petroleum diesel so long as crude oil prices remain more than $50 a barrel.

Bethune says Earthrace crossed the Pacific at a leisurely 15 to 20 knots. Its top speed is 45 knots. “We can’t afford the fuel to go any faster,” he says. Fuel consumption averaged “very roughly” a gallon per nautical mile across the Pacific, according to Bethune.

He says Earthrace has had no major mechanical troubles, but it has suffered some hull damage in miscellaneous incidents. The boat hit a log off East Cape during sea trials around New Zealand, damaging the bow, sponsons and rudder. Back in good repair, it crossed the Pacific without incident but then suffered some bow damage at the dock in Vancouver, when a gawker came too close in his boat. En route to Portland, Ore., Earthrace’s props and rudders were fouled by fishing nets on the Columbia River. Crew cut the nets loose, but then a little farther up the river a three-barge tow forced the boat into the shallows, damaging the hull and rudders, Bethune says. He planned to make repairs in San Francisco.

Bethune says he still was looking for a sponsor to underwrite the boat’s $2 million building cost and the estimated $500,000 to race around the world, document it on film, and resume his world tour to promote biodiesel. Bethune has sunk about $600,000 of his own money into the venture, borrowing and mortgaging his home three times. “My wife is getting grumpy because we’ve got no money,” he says, though she supports Earthrace. “She’s a willing participant in this.”

Auckland, New Zealand, naval architect Craig Loomes designed Earthrace. Custom-yacht builder Calibre Yachts constructed the boat of strong, lightweight carbon fiber and Kevlar composites to keep its displacement at a svelte 10 tons. Even the drive shafts and propellers are carbon, and the props are variable pitch for optimum fuel efficiency.

After crossing the Pacific, Bethune is more confident than ever that biodiesel can power the boat around the world in 65 days. “If we get around the world in one piece, we’ll definitely get the record,” he says.