Current Affairs

If global shipping were a country it would be the sixth biggest producer of greenhouse gases. We talk to the pioneers in the race to make boats more environmentally friendly.

  • Words: Otto Barkham

It would be easy to imagine Konrad Bergström sailing the seas on a Viking longship. With his leonine hair, messianic zeal, and love for belting out Scandinavian drinking songs, the Swedish entrepreneur’s forceful personality seems to tap into centuries’ worth of Nordic wild men fearlessly negotiating the waves. Where historically the Vikings came to bring fear though, Bergström is in the business of marketing hope. Hope, specifically, for the environment, in the form of his Stockholm-based company X Shore, which wants to transform the way we look at sea travel by developing 100% electric boats.

X Shore Eelex 6500.

‘I saw that Tesla had a very powerful concept when it came to design, innovation and sustainability,’ Bergström told me when I attended a presentation of his Eelex 8000 in Mallorca this summer. Bergström realised he had a talent for fusing technology and design when he founded Zound Industries, a Swedish headphone company that became the country’s fastest growing company of all time. But making environmentally-friendly boats had been an obsession since 1996, and seeing the Tesla proved a trigger for action. ‘I brought in my designers, and we brainstormed how to create a boat that doesn’t use fossil fuel.’

‘Just one long distance ship can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars.’

The result is a lithium-battery-powered sports vessel that can reach speeds of up to 40 knots and emits next to no noise – ‘Experience the Power of Silence’ whispers the slogan. Rolls Royce has designed the propellers and rudder, while respected Swedish company Storebro has overseen the manufacture of the boat itself. Since the summer Bergström has gone on a whirlwind crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the next phase of development, taking his vision to boating hubs including Venice, Cannes, Barcelona and Katowice in Poland. This October he announced triumphantly that he had raised €1.5 million. ‘Our goal is to change how we travel at sea fundamentally,’ he declared.

The race to reform the boating industry is on. Traditionally long distance ships have been the worst offenders – it’s been estimated that just one of those vessels that most of us normally experience as silent silhouettes on the horizon can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. Another much touted statistic is that if global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth biggest producer of greenhouse gases after the United States, China, Russia, India and Japan. Smaller boats have a much less dramatic impact on the environment, but they are feeling the pressure too, both to reduce emissions and to examine the chemicals they use to clean, protect and run their watercraft. Toxins linked to boating have been proven to cause birth defects, mutations, and death in underwater wildlife, which means that any serious boat manufacturer is starting to question everything from the kind of engine they have to the materials they use.

‘It would be easy to imagine him sailing the seas on a Viking longship.’ X Shore's Konrad Bergström.
X Shore Eelex 6500.

‘This industry is very much behind the curve of other industries in its outlook, not least in simple lifecycle analysis tools to understand where each component [of a boat] comes from and where that component will end up.’ In a former incarnation Kiran Haslam toured the world as a rock musician and composer – now he is the Board Member for Environment and Chief Marketing Officer at the world-famous Princess Yachts. The company is booming right now, after announcing a record £30 million in profits last year, but Haslam is well aware that it has to keep evolving rapidly to keep up with green demands. ‘At the boat shows over the September period, I announced our intention at Princess to reduce our carbon emissions by 20% over the next 24/36 months,’ he continues. ‘And that’s just the start. We’re looking at biomass fuel burners, we’re looking at solar power, we’re looking at rainwater catchment so that we can use that, we’re looking at LED light technology to replace prehistoric lights. We’re looking at a whole myriad of factors.’

Part of the Princess vision is to switch to hybrid engines. But Haslam, who also has a BSc in Engineering Technology from Deakin University points out that ‘for the engine and propulsion suppliers in our industry, the marine segment of the business is disproportionately small, so we’re low on their priority list’. After having extended conversations with Princess’s different engine suppliers he is, even so, happily convinced that ‘all of them are geared for action. There are hybrid offerings in play right now: the reason they’re not on the market yet is to do with questions of battery storage and battery energy conversion’.

R35 from Princess Yachts, heralded by the boating press as a cross between a yacht and a supercar.

Princess’s response to this has been to create ‘two new flagship projects, the X95 and the Y95. We have worked collaboratively with one particular engine provider so we can package protect these boats for hybrid propulsion. So when the batteries are ready to go, we lift out the old engine and replace it with the new hybrid propulsion engine. I think that we’ll start to see this kind of technology tracked through in the next eighteen months’.

The research and development needed to bring in the best new technology inevitably raises substantial costs at this stage. So it’s probably not surprising that it’s a Russian multi-millionaire, Oleg Burlakov, who has initiated the most headline-grabbing project in environmentally-friendly boating to date. The 106.7-metre-long Black Pearl, the largest sailing yacht in the world, was commissioned in 2016 and built by the Netherlands’ company Oceanco. The cost came in at almost $200 million.

Since being delivered in 2018, one of her claims to fame has been that she can cross the Atlantic using only 20 litres of fuel – the aim is that eventually she will need to use no fuel at all. A modern ‘DynaRig’ system – complete with three rotating carbon masts and 2,900 square metres of sails embedded with solar panels – means that she can harness old-fashioned wind and sun power in the most dynamic way possible. A variable pitch propeller also allows her to generate electricity which can be stored in the large on-board batteries. Beyond this she comes with luxury accommodation for 12 guests, a convertible cinema, a beach club, and an on-deck jacuzzi.

A major challenge for any innovator who wants to go purely electric is, of course, opportunities for recharging, which means that hybrid engines currently seem like the best solution for a vessel that could hypothetically go anywhere in the world. However, there have been exciting innovations involving electricity and boats that simply travel a fixed route. In Norway, the world’s first electric passenger and car ferry, Ampere, has proved enormously successful since it first appeared in 2015. It operates on a 5.7km route between the villages of Lavik and Oppedal, across Norway’s longest and deepest fjord. Last year it was announced that its carbon emissions had been reduced by 95%, and its running costs by 80%. Since that announcement, it’s been reported that 53 more electric ferries have been ordered.

In another, rather more ironic example, the first electronic cargo ship is currently operating in China on the Pearl River. It was launched in December 2017, operates from a lithium-ion battery weighing 26 tons, and can carry up to 2,000 tons of cargo. It can travel 80km on a two-hour charge, and to date has been an enormous success. So far so good, but this environmentally-friendly great leap forward is being used for the transportation of thermal coal, which contributes to the Pearl River Delta being one of the most polluted areas in China.

‘A company that is not sustainable will not be alive in five years.’

Konrad Bergström

For those who want to roam wild and free across the seas, there are factors beyond engine-type that help to reduce carbon emissions. This summer Princess launched a performance sports yacht, the R35, which was heralded by the boating press as a cross between a yacht and a supercar, (an entirely appropriate description given its design by Pininfarina, the firm that until recently was associated with Ferrari). I got a chance to put it through its paces in Cannes. On a clear blue morning, the R35 carved its way across the waves with action as lean and mean as a cheetah; its technical fluency combined with the sheer sense of quality craftsmanship marked it out as a seriously impressive addition to the varied Princess fleet.

Detail from the R35.
Princess Yachts R35.

Speed is something of a guilty pleasure when you’re discussing boats and the environment, since one of the most obvious ways to reduce emissions is to, ahem, go slower. However, the aerodynamism of the R35 combined with its lightness and state-of-the-art foiling system all contribute to it belching fewer emissions into the sea, ‘There’s a 35% fuel burn efficiency,’ says Haslam. Foiling, for those who don’t speak fluent boat, is the attachment of slim-wing-like structures to the hull of the vessel, which raise it out of the water and reduce drag (and hence the amount of power the boat needs to exert) the faster it goes. Bergström’s Eelex boats are also capitalising on hydrofoil technology to increase efficiency of movement. With the R35, the effect is enhanced by an onboard computer that makes 100 calculations a second to calculate exactly how the foils should be positioned. As a result the increased speed is matched by a surprising sense of stability.

With environmentally-friendly technologies and innovation advancing at a record rate, what’s most clear for Haslam is that everybody in the boat industry should be part of the debate about how to make things for the better. ‘I wouldn’t like to think that any of what we’re doing is green peacocking,’ he declares. ‘Put the peacocking aside, create the demand [for more environmentally-sound technologies] together, then the providers will become more competitive and this will all be more cost-effective.’ For Bergström there’s an equally strong imperative: ‘A company that is not sustainable will not be alive in five years,’ he asserts. Which is simultaneously reassuring and as good an incentive as any to make sure the relationship between boats and the sea remains mutually beneficial.

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