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Eco Challenge: One Man’s Quest to Build an Eco-Friendly Passagemaker, Parts I and 2

Submitted by on September 11, 2017 – 7:27 pmNo Comment

by Peter Wilcox (Passage Maker)  Having the opportunity to imagine and oversee the building of my own ideal Inside Passage vessel has been exquisitely educational—initiating a chain of engaging design, building, voyaging, and teaching adventures.

Taking a break from sailing up north, we decided to buy an interim boat for exploring the Columbia River. Eventually, we landed on a salty, but fairly tired 33-foot bridgedeck power cruiser designed by Ed Monk Sr. and built in 1946. Royal Scot needed both aesthetic and systems work, but turned out to be a perfect displacement hull with a 4-cylinder diesel, one of those architecturally satisfying Monk interiors, and lifelong ties to the Columbia River where we live. And, with seven safe voyages up the west coast of Vancouver Island under her keel, she was a proven passagemaker. Per our plan, Royal Scot gave us our first opportunity to experiment with using 100-percent biodiesel fuel in her old Perkins engine.

We learned firsthand about the ease of switching an older vessel to clean and quiet biodiesel, changing the fuel lines to Viton and frequently changing the fuel filters during its first weeks. Over those years we never had any fuel-related issues.

Royal Scot was quieter and produced less smoke and odor. Commercial biodiesel often smells like waffles, rather than French fries (as absolutely everyone jokes), both of which are much better than sickening diesel. Our Oregon-made fuel was frequently an interesting conversation-starter.

Yet, over time, we longed to be sailing and voyaging north again. We sold her just after celebrating Royal Scot’s 65th birthday.

Among the midsize newer vessels in the show, several had been built by the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding and held intriguing little signs reading: “Need Large Boat Commission for Wooden Boatbuilding School.”

Master shipwright Richard Wilmore and his flotilla of talented and hardworking students-—20 to 22 students each year—built the hull, house, and spars for what would in less than two enchanting years become Ama Natura.

 I was trying to create the beautiful synthesis of a practical new cruiser and an environmental test platform that could help change boating. 

Yet a few years solely under power on Royal Scot had left me yearning for sails to set and trim, and the desire for less engine noise and fewer emissions by using the fickle wind whenever practical.

Our new motorsailer would be highly efficient, free of using fossil fuel, and be driven by a gaff-ketch rig. Her name, Ama Natura, translates from Latin to, “She Loves Nature.”

In that saloon we now have a more secluded place where we enjoy a crackling biodiesel-fueled Dickinson fireplace heater that keeps the core of the boat warm.

A great example of an ultra-clean small vessel is the hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered 6-year-old passenger ferry, Hydrogenesis, which we rode with its designer and owner in Bristol, England, last year. Hydrogen combustion emits only clean water, in a profound shift slightly cleaning whatever body of water in which the vessel operates.

Two Dickinson stoves-—including one of the Pacific cookstoves with the rare aluminum sailboat top—that burn more cleanly on B99.9 than on their normal diesel number 2 fuel. It paired nicely with the vintage Swedish two-burner alcohol warm-weather cookstove that uses nearly petroleum-free denatured E97 ethanol.

Part 2

I switched Ama to plant-based motor and transmission oils two years after her launch. I had just spent a remarkable day learning about NOAA’s Green Ships Initiative from its lead man, Dennis Donahue, at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab and on NOAA vessels in Muskegon, Michigan.


For more than 15 years, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been researching and using B100 biodiesel in a number of its own fleets as part of thier Green Ships Initiative. NOAA’s research has concluded that B100 biodiesel reduces unburned hydrocarbons by almost 80 percent in comparison with fossil diesel, assuming 100-percent recycled oil. Research has shown that restaurants in the United States produce only about 300 million gallons of waste cooking oil annually, and the commercial U.S. marine industry alone consumed 2.25 billion gallons of diesel in 2012.

ASTM-certified biodiesel is no longer as available from marine fueling stations as it was earlier in the 2000s. In a further effort to decrease emissions and operating costs, international marine emission regulations have caused commercial shipping companies to shift to the use of liquified natural gas (LNG), reducing the use of dirty, heavy bunker and diesel.

In thinking about a possible endgame for clean marine propulsion, in the past several years NOAA has been modifying marine diesels to run on either B100 or compressed natural gas. They are looking at evolving this program into dual-fuel B100 and hydrogen diesels that could actually clean the seawater upon which they float, at least marginally. This could be the holy grail of a clean marine propulsion strategy that retains the necessary long range and continuing use of existing machinery.In concert with the Navy, Coast Guard, and other federal agencies, NOAA has conducted major testing and trials that have documented 20 to 40 percent lower operating costs, much longer injector lifetimes, overall better performance, extended engine life, substantially lower emissions of nitrous oxide (NOx) and an 85 percent reduction of the carcinogens that are in diesel No. 2 exhaust, which the EPA and World Health Organization last year declared to be as dangerous as second-hand smoke.

In the Midwest, a number of (B20-B100) marine biodiesel stations still operate, especially in the area around Lake Michigan. But even there it is often simpler and more cost-effective to have a local B99.9 distributor drive a truck to a suitable dock to fuel up. Much of this fuel is high in carbon and soy-based.

In Ama’s case, we have a 275-gallon tote that allows us to get bulk pricing, and I deliver the fuel myself, in several five-gallon cans at a time, during winter and spring visits each year until she is full. We carry a total of 160 gallons aboard and this generally lasts us for a season of cruising.

Donahue says there are at least 200 commercial ships and boats operating in Lake Michigan on B99.9 where fueling is easier.

Because biodiesel absorbs and retains more water than #2 diesel, and quickly become less stable, one should continuously desiccate the fuel—especially if it is not going to be used within a few weeks.

Donahue says that NOAA’s experience has been that water problems are much more prevalent with blends, like B20, rather than straight B99.9.   READ MORE Part 1      READ MORE Part 2  and MORE (Inside Passage Decarbonization Project)

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