To get people excited about electric boats, E1 offers “Punch in the Face”
When you are a young yacht designer and receive an unexpected request to come up with “the most advanced boat ever built”, you are rightly diving in.
“My ambition became to design something really, really cool,” enthuses Sophi Horne, founder of SeaBird Technologies, based in Oslo, Norway. “I kept thinking, elegant and sexy, elegant and sexy. Performance-wise, we performed well, but if I had felt I had to ask any photographer not to shoot from a particular angle, I think I would have failed.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe the RaceBird, as the boat is called, was straight out of DARPA or a James Bond movie. At 23 feet long, with the single-seat cockpit set back from the nose, the electric motor delivering a top speed of 58 mph and, more innovatively, the hull mounted on truncated foils, lifting her out of the water, giving her a tight turning capability without rollover, the RaceBird looks like a fighter jet for breaststroke. And that’s fitting, given that 12 RaceBird teams will likely be on the grid in Miami next year.
This is because the RaceBird is the centerpiece of a much larger project: the E1 series, the first all-electric racing boat, developed by Alejandro Agag – founder of the Formula E and Extreme E electric motorsport series – and Rodi Basso, whose engineering career has taken him from NASA to Ferrari, Red Bull to Marelli and McLaren. It was Agag who had invested in Horne’s startup SeaBird, which planned to develop a six-berth electric pleasure boat, intended to make boating more accessible to more people. It was Basso who saw the potential to push this design to its limits – skillfully assisted by Victory Marine, one of Italy’s leading nautical design houses and the company that built the RaceBird – to create the right boat. for a new brand of entertainment.
“I think what was needed was a bit of a punch in the face, and the design and engineering of the RaceBird delivers that,” says Basso, who is based in London. “There is often an aversion to [the risk of] bring something completely new or too different, but at the same time it was an amazing way to make a point: that we need to turn the page on how we appreciate water.
Certainly the E1 series represents a major spectacle: it is currently in negotiations with 70 cities around the world to host races, with Venice and Monaco listed, Rotterdam, Jeddah and Miami on the cards, and with Stockholm and Budapest probably also for the first season. A third team is about to confirm, and 10 more are discussing the final details. Basso wants each race to have between eight and 12 teams, battling it out on tight, dynamic courses close to shore – not the usual straight-line races of powerboating in the distance – in the fastest lap elimination heats.
There is also the expected glamour. Although the early sponsors of the E1 series were the tech companies that provided various parts or materials that went into the RaceBird, inevitably the luxury watch and fashion world is keen to put its names to the side as well. Basso says E1, like Formula 1, will also have a lot of publicity-generating international celebrity involvement. But for him, the medium contains a message. Just as the automotive world is moving towards electrification, this boat racing series aims to highlight the need for the marine world to do the same, from small boats like the RaceBird to cargo ships which, often overlooked, contribute to at least 2.5% of global CO2 emissions.
“There is a problematic gap, because the maritime industry is at least 20 years behind the development of electric power technologies,” says Basso. “We hope that by creating an exciting sport, we can help electrify this industry, and that’s really our mission, to showcase an idea.”
“I am an engineer and I simply see it as a question of efficiency. It’s not that I’m a fan of any particular technology,” he adds. “But what frustrates me is that, even in the face of the obvious, there are still strong interests blocking electrification in all forms of mobility. We believe that sport [given its profile] is the best way to overcome this blockage. That is why technology cannot be the protagonist of the story, but entertainment. »
The entertainment factor is also a way to involve the powerful coastal city authorities as well, although there had to be some back and forth to strike a balance between allowing the crowds to get close to the action and the demands of the major busy ports. with commercial traffic. But powerboating currently has nothing to do with the pulling power of Formula 1, so being able to see the action is crucial, claims Basso.
Agag and Basso have certainly thought of creating a tempting package for them. As Basso explains, these towns “are under increasing pressure from public opinion to act on water quality and life around the port, and, given that [these cities] are centers for the maritime industry, they need more and more concrete examples to show that they are doing something about it. And we are completely aligned with this program.
The E1 series currently charges venue fees to each city, but the city is then free to market the event as it sees fit, tickets to adjacent events, etc. But the event will offer more than just a way to generate cash for the city’s coffers. It will also cover the cost of marine biologists to stay and work locally on water quality issues. It plans to hold an exhibition at each site where local businesses can showcase their own clean tech projects to deep-pocketed companies. And, more sustainably, by hosting E1 – the events will be organized from a converted freighter transformed into a floating HQ, as with Extreme E — each site retains the installed waterside charging infrastructure.
“There are so many lessons from the automotive world that can be applied to the marine world, including the lack of charging infrastructure,” Basso says. There are also lessons in how not to do things. E1 expects, for example, that for the coming seasons, teams will bring electric racing boats of their own design, in theory extending the possibilities of disseminating their technologies to the wider maritime market.
But Basso notes how the impact Formula 1 has had in this way has been somewhat oversold. He cites his development of ERS, or energy recovery systems – hybrid engines of a fancier name – which, however clever, cannot be scaled up for mass production. “It’s becoming a self-referential exercise that engineers have fun in, sure, but what’s the wider impact?” he is asking himself.
That didn’t stop the E1 series from further developing the RaceBird. Such was the speed of the project from conception to imminent launch.
“It was all about ‘this is the idea, this is the timeline, have it ready in a year!'” Horne laughs. With this frame, the first generation of the machine inevitably required compromises. The second generation, now built and undergoing final testing, will have a bespoke cockpit, an integral engine rather than an outboard motor and what Horne promises will be even cleaner lines. It will be, as Basso might describe it, another punch to the face.
“RaceBird represents excitement, our spirit as a startup and the E1 series as a new sport,” he says. “I love seeing people’s reaction when they see the boat for the first time.”
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