Around the World in 60 Days

To draw global attention to the potential of alternative fuels, the B100-powered speedboat Earthrace conquered the world speed record for circumnavigating the globe in a powerboat.
By Erin Voegele | September 16, 2008
Skipper Pete Bethune and crew navigated the 80-foot-long, tri-hull wave-piercer, Earthrace, around the world in a record-breaking 60 days, 23 hours and 49 minutes.

The boat, which can submarine under waves, was Bethune's brainchild. The New Zealander developed the idea while working as an oil exploration engineer. "Towards the end of my time there I became increasingly uneasy about our dependence on what is a very finite resource," he says. Bethune began researching renewable fuels and became a supporter of biodiesel and ethanol. Although he acknowledges that biofuels are not a silver bullet solution, he says they are certainly a step in the right direction and can be implemented rapidly.

Bethune considered a variety of ways to promote biofuels, including touring the United States and Australia with a mobile biodiesel plant, producing biodiesel from local feedstocks. Ultimately, that project proved too "hippie-like." "I wanted something that was high tech and inspirational," he says.

Earthrace was a five-year project. According to Bethune, it took about a year to decide how to put the project together, another year to attempt to raise funds to get started and a year to build the boat. Earthrace has been in the water for two years now. A 2007 attempt to beat the world record failed.

Earthrace's First World Record Attempt
The boat itself is hailed as one of the highest-profile, greenest powerboats in the world. Because it runs on B100, the boat's carbon dioxide emissions are lowered by an estimated 78 percent. To offset the carbon footprint of fuel delivery and ground crew travel during the race, the team purchased carbon offsets from Unlike most large boats, Earthrace's anti-foul, or underwater paint, is completely nontoxic. It is also the first boat to use a hemp composite as construction material, and has an extremely efficient hull design that reduces fuel consumption.

The project was supported by both corporate sponsorship and private donations. Those supporters have contributed much more than money. For example, Bethune and two volunteers showed their commitment to the project by undergoing liposuction and donating their body fat to be manufactured into biodiesel. The three donated enough body fat to produce approximately two gallons of the fuel, which was added to the tank during Earthrace's first fuel-up.

Bethune estimates it has taken about $3 million to build the boat and an additional $1.5 million over the past two years to complete the two record attempts and promotional tours. To get the project underway, Bethune and his family raised nearly $750,000 out of personal assets and borrowed another $750,000. Bethune struggled, but was able to secure sponsorship for the remaining $1.5 million needed to get the boat in the water.

Although Earthrace was able to shatter the world record this year, its first attempt came to a tragic end. Earthrace first set out to beat the record in March 2007 from Barbados. Eight days into the race the boat struck a Guatemalan fishing boat carrying three passengers. Although Earthrace's crew attempted to rescue the men, one died and another was seriously injured. The fishing boat, which had no lights and did not appear on radar, was impossible for the Earthrace crew to spot at night. The incident was ruled an accident by Guatemalan authorities, but it understandably delayed Earthrace's first world record attempt. The race was further delayed by three severe weather systems that took a toll on the boat. The crew abandoned the world record attempt at the end of May as Earthrace had suffered structural damage to its main hull and was taking on water. The crew tried to repair the damage, but it would not hold.

Second Time is the Charm
"After the first attempt, it felt like my heart had been ripped out," Bethune says. "I really felt like I'd let so many people and companies down. It took me six months to get around to deciding on a second attempt." Ultimately, he needed to complete what he told people the crew would do. "I was worried that not getting the record did not reflect well on biodiesel, when in fact it had nothing to do with us not getting the record the first time around-unfinished business I guess," Bethune says.

According to Bethune, one aspect of the race that made this year's attempt more successful was a single sponsor who donated all of the fuel. The first time around, the crew had issues with some bad fuel. Bethune also says that logistics were much better during the second attempt and the crew had more technical experience. They were prepared to handle problems the second time around and the whole project was managed better. Surprisingly, the race had a lower budget during the second attempt, he says.

Portugal-based SGC Energia was the exclusive fuel sponsor for this year's race. According to Pedro Pereira, SGC Energia spokesman, his company sponsored Earthrace because they wanted to the world to know the kind of results biofuels can produce. Pereira says making sure the biodiesel arrived at each port in time required a great deal of planning. The team members were in constant contact with one another, and with a contact person at each port. "They were 60 quite intense days," he says.

Earthrace used about 40,000 gallons of biodiesel during the world record attempt. Bethune says getting biodiesel into each port could be done, but it was often very expensive. In fact, Earthrace still owes the shipping company about $45,000. "Some locations came in at 50 percent above the quoted price," he says.

Bethune says Earthrace's engines ran great on biodiesel. There were a few setbacks, such as a high pressure line that burst, but those problems had nothing to do with the fuel. The boat's original engines ran about 6,000 hours. Bethune says that due to biodiesel's lubricity, bore wear on the engine was less than it would have been with petroleum-based diesel. However, the injection system wear was a little higher with biodiesel because of its higher viscosity. "Overall the engine cost is about the same, I reckon," Bethune says. "We found we got a few percent less energy from biodiesel versus diesel. The highest rating was for tallow-based biodiesel, the lowest was from [biodiesel made with] waste cooking oils."

The boat crossed the finish line on June 27. "To work so long on something and finally deliver after such a tough journey was amazing," Bethune says. "Everyone should experience that once in their life."

Although this year's race was more successful than the previous year, it wasn't all smooth sailing. The crews' determination was tested when the boat hit a log outside of Palau and they were forced to drive to Singapore on one engine for repairs. The collision caused a smashed rudder and P bracket, a bent driveshaft, stuffed propeller and damaged hull.

According to Bethune, that was the most challenging part of the journey. In Singapore the locals estimated it would take three weeks to finish the repairs. "We worked basically three days straight and got it repaired, which was a small miracle-amazing," he says. "Everything we touched worked and it just fell into place so well when we got back in the water and had no vibrations or problems I couldn't believe it."

If he could go back and do anything different, Bethune says he would have spent all of his money getting the project started. "I wasted a year trying to get sponsors and never really got any major ones," he says. He would also concentrate on the promotional tour, giving it more emphasis from the start. "It is such a good way to connect with people," Bethune says. "Early on we focused much more on the race, but the tour is better at connecting with people. The two complement each other."

Despite its success, Earthrace is struggling to get funding to finish the TV series that was planned. "As long as I complete that, I reckon we have delivered what we set out to do," Bethune says. "The promo tour has exceeded what I originally thought. We've had more than 100,000 people through the boat and so much local media in cities we've visited." He says the support from schools was better than they anticipated it would be. The project attracted less media attention in the United States than he thought it would, although interest in Europe was strong.

Moving forward, Pereira says SGC Energia plans to continue its involvement with Earthrace, and to encourage discussions on the need for and advantages of renewable fuels. The crew is completing a fall world tour. "I'd like to see Earthrace end up in a museum, although at the moment it's more likely I'll just sell Earthrace to pay off my debts," Bethune says.

"It's been an amazing journey, and I'm the lucky guy to be in the middle of it," Bethune says. "I'm actually not that talented. I have just had so many talented people come in and contribute, and the sum of all that is something quite extraordinary. Our job recently changed. Early on it was purely about promoting biodiesel, whereas now we are often defending it." He says that although biodiesel is not a silver bullet, the product can contribute a lot right now. According to Bethune, the industry would benefit by developing better feedstock sources, ensuring sustainable production and utilizing local resources.

Erin Voegele is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 373-8040.
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