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Record is a relief for Earthrace skipper

Voyage around the world in the biodiesel-fueled powerboat sets a new mark of a little more than 60 days

Voyage around the world in the biodiesel-fueled powerboat sets a new mark of a little more than 60 days

Looking back on the finish of his record-breaking powerboat voyage around the world aboard Earthrace, Pete Bethune describes the moment as one of sheer ecstasy.

“It’s amazing the emotions that you feel,” says the 43-year-old Kiwi. “Everyone should experience it once in their life. … [But] it hasn’t been easy.”


Bethune remembers thinking five years ago, Wouldn’t it be cool to race around the world in a biodiesel-fueled boat, beat the world powerboat speed record, and give a boost to the possibilities of alternative fuels? “It has been much better than cool,” he says. “We finally delivered on what we promised.”

When Earthrace, a 78-foot wave-piercing trihull that tops out at 40 to 45 knots, rumbled into the harbor at Sagunto, Spain, June 27, it broke by almost 14 days the around-the-world powerboat speed record set 10 years ago by the British 115-foot wave-piercer Cable & Wireless Adventurer. The new record for the 24,000-nautical-mile voyage: 60 days, 23 hours, 49 minutes. The westward voyage began in Spain April 27 and included stops in the Azores; San Juan, Puerto Rico; the Panama Canal; Manzanillo, Mexico; San Diego; Maui, Hawaii; the Marshall Islands; Palau; Singapore; Cochin, India; Oman; and the Suez Canal.

This was the oil engineer’s second attempt at the record. He has been operating on a shoestring — mortgaging his home, chasing sponsorships, keeping creditors at bay — since conceiving what seemed, at the time, a grand adventure to prove a point he thought well worth proving: that 100 percent biodiesel made from animal and vegetable fats can replace petroleum diesel as an everyday fuel.

Indeed, it wasn’t easy.

Bethune’s failed 2007 try was fraught with problems. Among other setbacks, Earthrace collided with a fishing boat off Guatemala, killing one fisherman and injuring another. Authorities detained the boat and crew for 10 days while Earthrace’s insurer negotiated a settlement with the fishermen’s families. Bethune and his three crewmembers eventually had to abort the effort when the wave-piercer’s hull cracked during a storm in the Mediterranean.

This time around, the record attempt nearly derailed when the lightweight carbon fiber-and-Kevlar trihull struck submerged debris in the western Pacific, off Koror, Palau. The collision broke a blade off one of Earthrace’s props, bent a drive shaft and cracked a rudder. Earthrace limped into Singapore — 2,000 miles away — at 14 to 16 knots using one of its twin Cummins MerCruiser QSC8.3 540-hp diesels. The ground crew found a salvage yard that could haul the boat, and it completed repairs in three days.

Leaving Palau, Earthrace was 2,700 miles ahead of the record; leaving

Singapore, its lead had fallen to 1,556 miles. Setting off into the Indian Ocean, the wave-piercer then ran headlong into monsoons — stiff trade winds, drenching rains and 20-foot waves at times — which along with a small crack in the bow of the center hull slowed them to 12 knots. For Bethune, this was do-or-die time.

“I kind of created this monster,” he says. “I couldn’t let go of it. If I stopped without making the record, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror again.”

He already had decided he didn’t have a third race in him. From the outset, he had seen this as a good adventure for a good cause. Yet as mile after mile of water passed under him, Bethune wearied of the voyage. He wearied of the sea. He wearied of the driving. He wearied of the crises. It was just plain hard, bone-wearying, stressful work. Yet he felt driven to make good on his word to finish and break the record, and he still wanted to make his point: biodiesel works.

Bethune says that early on an engine manufacturer had offered him $4 million — full sponsorship — to challenge the speed record, but the company wanted to scotch the green message. It wanted him to run on petroleum diesel. He rejected the money and the sponsorship. Earthrace was always about the environmental message, he says.

After two voyages around the world, he’s tired of driving boats. He still has a passion for engaging people dockside, at boat shows, conferences or seminars and talking about alternative energy. He remains convinced that although biodiesel may not be the ultimate answer to our energy needs, it is a good bridge, a transitional fuel that can help wean consumers off fossil fuels.

Designed by Auckland naval architect Craig Loomes, Earthrace looks like a spacecraft with its sharp entry, delta shape and wings rising high over the deck as engine air intakes. The wings remain out of the water when the boat plows through seas. An inch-thick windshield takes tons of water over the hull as the 10-ton boat pierces waves, enabling it to go faster in rough seas.

Earthrace is designed to carry 2,500 gallons of fuel for a 3,000-mile range. It stopped en route for refueling, its biodiesel supplied by sponsor SGC Energia, a Portuguese biodiesel maker that is exploring producing the vegetable fuel from algae. If biodiesel makers can do that, Bethune says, it will address two objections to the fuel — that it reduces grain supplies for food and contributes to deforestation by driving cultivation of palms for their oil in Brazil and Malaysia.

Earthrace’s twin QSC8.3 Cummins MerCruiser diesels ran well on biodiesel, says Celestino de Freitas, Bethune’s chief engineer. “For their size (8.3 liters) and output (540 hp each), there is no better for the Earthrace vessel,” says de Freitas in an e-mail interview. “We serviced them every two or three stops, a total of five times.”

He says he tries to run the engines at 2,200 rpm. “Here the engines are comfortable and could do three laps of the world,” says de Freitas. He says he had just two problems with the engines. The first was running them at slow speed during the monsoons, which caused them to overheat. “Due to their high rating, they don’t like low speeds,” he says. The other problem was that the electric fuel pumps broke down twice. Still, they went the distance.

Bethune has about $750,000 of his own money and $750,000 of creditors’ sunk into Earthrace. He hopes to recoup some or all of that, repay his creditors, and put his family — wife, Sharyn, and daughters Danielle, 13, and Alycia, 12 — back on a sound financial footing. Earthrace will tour Europe this summer, then the Caribbean, Singapore and Australia. It returns to New Zealand next spring.

Bethune hopes to end this phase of the adventure by selling the boat, perhaps to an Arab sheikh as a “toy” — a day cruiser — or to a museum like the Smithsonian Institution as an historic artifact. He says he will write a book about the adventure and plans a reality-type television series using original footage from the voyage.

He says he’ll do whatever he has to try to make everyone financially whole again, though he says he won’t be too disappointed if he doesn’t get all of his own money back. It was never about money anyway, he says.