Electric motor a welcome Surprise for Downeast Sailing charter boat

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Steve Keblinsky has been taking passengers sailing on schooners and friendship sloops for many years, doing business as Downeast Sailing Adventures.

On sunset sails in Southwest Harbor in summers past, he said, when he had to fire up the old diesel engine in his 1964 Phillip J. Nichols Friendship sloop Surprise to head back to the dock, the happy conversation between his passengers would stop.

Compared to the peace and quiet of watching the sunset under sail, the sound of the engine gave passengers the impression they were suddenly on a work boat or ferry. It ruined the mood.

This year, following some issues with the old 1970s diesel, Keblinsky installed an electric Elco motor in the boat. He’s been thrilled with the results.

“The old engine did great for a long time,” he said. “In the summer of 2013, we had a whole bunch of problems with it. The oil pan rusted out, which dumped oil all over the bilge.”

Of course, this was in July when time is money. Every trip missed when the boat has to be hauled for repairs means lost revenue.

“I pulled the motor out and put a new oil pan in,” he said. “We threw it back in the water in two days. Then another piece rusted out and started spewing oil. That was the impetus to start looking for a new motor.”

He discovered Elco Motor Yachts, based in Athens, N.Y., not far from Albany on the Hudson River. They were running an essay contest with a new Elco motor as the prize.

“I wrote my essay pretty fast,” he said. “I told them about how upset I was that my diesel engine was loud and nasty and how nice it would be to have an electric motor on the sunset sail when the wind goes dead.”

He won the contest, and his new engine arrived a couple of months later.

Installation was straightforward, he said. “Elco made it easy because they engineered the motor to be the same size as a standard marine diesel.”

The next challenge was figuring out where to put the four 12-volt batteries and how to charge them. He made a home for the batteries and a generator in the lazarette, in the aft part of the sloop.

The boat sits on a mooring in Southwest Harbor in between trips leaving from the Manset town dock, so he charges the batteries with a Honda generator.

“There’s a whole section in the lazarette where the generator can be hidden away and almost soundproofed,” he said. “If you look at the boat, you wouldn’t know that there was a generator running. I spent many afternoons after tying the boat up for the evening going out in my dinghy to see if you could hear it, if it was annoying.”

At first, gasoline to run the generator cost more than diesel for the old engine, but the numbers improved as he learned how long the generator needed to run.

“Now we’re talking one gallon of fuel will get me through three days.”

With the new motor, he loves the part of sunset sails that he used to dread. “It’s the best part about the whole thing. When the sun goes down and the wind craps out as it always does, we motor home and everybody talks at the same tone they were before. We can also hear all the conversations on the other boats in the harbor.”

The lack of sound actually required a learning curve for the captain. Learning to drive into the dock was a challenge with a quiet engine, he said, because he used to go by the sound of the engine to tell how much throttle he had on. “You go by feel of where the throttle is,” he said, “because you’re not hearing a darn thing.”

The electric system is simple, and he likes not having to worry about oil getting into the ocean. “This motor is so maintenance-free. There’s nothing to winterizing it – no antifreeze, you just plug it in. Every 50,000 hours, I have to change the bearings, which, … I’ll be dead.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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