Launch, Trial and First Cruise
I promised that I would post some feedback on Perseverance as soon as I could after she was lauched, so here it is. The outline is in chronological order, but to save jumping back and forth I have completed discussion of each item as it arises. I hope that makes sense, anyway let's get going.
Persy, as she has become known, was launched on 13th May 2021 into the waters of Droitwich Spa Marina, then moved across the marina to her temporary mooring. Because Ortomarine had booked a large crane for moving two boats on that day, a couple of fitting out jobs had not been completed before launch day, and these were finished off at the marina.
Christening Persy with Proper Job
...Stern Bearing and Seal
Immediately after she was in the water, Rob Howdle of Ortomarine and I pulled back the rubber bellows that holds the carbon sealing ring against the shaft mounted stainless disk. This allowed water to come up the cutless bearing and wet the stern seal. A few drops of black water (from the carbon dust) was all that came out. I looked a couple of times after that to check it was still dry, then on 30th May (the day after the trial) I put deck boards across the swim and covered them with a protective mat which extends over the steel swim area. I looked again on 15th June and again on 17th July and found not a drop in the swim. In the intervening days of cruising, I have done no maintenance to the stern seal or bearing.
With some trepidation, I pressed the Propulsion button (no key on this boat) and we set off from the fuel dock where she was launched towards her mooring. The quiet was disconcerting, and I learned afterwards that those standing on shore wondered why I was going so fast. The lack of audible feedback from an engine means you have to learn new speed cues, which I did not appreciate on the first few outings.
The boat was moving swiftly towards the jetty, upon which Ortomarine’s Caroline Badger was standing. I selected reverse. This was met with a rattling sound beneath me but the boat did not slow down. As we were heading directly towards his partner, I informed Rob Howdle, in the most calm voice I could muster, that I had no control of the boat at this point. Then the motor kicked in, full reverse was obtained and I regained control of the situation.
When we had moored up, Caroline was charming and said she was surprised that I had such confidence in the boat on its first journey. I then explained that she was moments away from having 17 tonnes of boat joining her at the end of the jetty!
Speaking to the motor designer, from Tema in Croatia, we learned that it had been supplied with a new “sensorless” control system. This was fine once the motor was running, but had problems getting started in either direction. The juddering we had felt was where the motor was trying to start turning backwards but the inertia of the propeller (and perhaps some effect of the wake) was preventing the shaft from reaching the expected speed. This had not been evident in the workshop, as we had not connected the propeller shaft to the motor because the bearing had no water to lubricate it.
Also in the marina, with all the systems able to operate as intended, the generator was run. The result was a terrible throbbing throughout the boat, with some null points in the cabin and some points of quite awful low frequency resonance. The lesson here was that although the exhaust note was negligible, the mechanical vibrations of the engine were not suppressed adequately by the engine mounts within the generator housing.
After the Launch
The following week we went on a narrowboat holiday with friends, held over from 2020 due to Covid. This included doing battle with the Stratford canal locks, where some of the lock mechanisms are terribly hard work. In fact one caused our friend to strain so hard that she had to be rushed to hospital with a hernia and have emergency surgery. Message here – don’t bust a gut (literally!) when working the locks.
The time away gave the builders an opportunity to finish off the internal fittings and also to fit an extra set of anti-vibration mounts below the generator. A motor control unit calibration unit was sent over from the manufacturers in Croatia, ready to address the motor speed control issues.
Fixing the Motor
When I got back to the marina, Rob and I held a zoom call with Tema and they talked us through the different calibration tool menus to adjust the control unit parameters. The first set of changes made no improvement, and the motor still hunted before starting off in the selected direction. The second set of changes were successful, with the motor starting off in the selected direction and then under normal control.
Since this change, we have once (during the trial stopping test) had a repeat of the delay in changing direction, but apart from that one exceptional case the motor has worked faultlessly. Swift changes of direction have given no problems and I have gained full confidence in the system.
I did wonder about the width of the deadband of the throttle, to the extent that I carried out specific tests to find out where the motor starts to move in either direction. The answer was that a soon as the throttle lever is out of the “stop” detent, the motor is turning – another lesson I learned is that electric motors can turn so slowly that there is no visible wake. This type of very slow operation makes some low speed manoeuvres possible, which traditionally involved lots of clunking into and out of idle. For example, holding position in a lock can be more precise.
First Cruise and Trial
On 27th May we set off to take part in the electric boat trial organized by Ortomarine, and which I had helped plan. This was to take place from Worcester on 29th May, with canal VIPs joining us and seven other Ortomarine boats.
To describe our relocation to Worcester as a cruise is probably a bit strong, but at least we were travelling and had slipped the bonds of Droitwich Spa Marina. The boat performed largely as expected although, like a new mother, we were panicking about every little thing. The evening of 28th May was spent in the company of other Ortomainers, with varying degrees of experience of their boat, of rivers and of sailing in groups. The River Severn was in “Amber” state, with significant flow and so many of us decided to go with life vests, anchors at the ready and rubbing lucky rabbits’ feet.
The day of the trial was overcast and gloomy, not helping our mood. We locked down the two broad locks from Diglis Basin onto the Severn alongside Hunky Dory, another serial electric boat. They had about one year’s experience. Compared with our two days, they were old hands! For some completely unknown reason Hunky Dory nominated me to leave the lock first. The lock gates opened and the wide Severn beckoned. We had to make a sharp turn right, into the flow of the river which now looked alarmingly fast. Downstream to our left was a wier, where I knew someone had come to grief two days before.
Nervous moment as the lock gates open. No going back now!
As soon as the nose of Perseverance was past the lock entrance, I selected full power on the bow thruster and pushed out into the flow. To my delight, she turned upstream without a problem, then picked up speed. It was quickly apparent that we had the speed to travel up against the flow. As well as the thrust from Perseverance’s prop at full power, the benefit of swimming in a wider and deeper river helped our speed. Only thirty seconds after leaving the lock, Roma and I were smiling at each other as all (OK, most of) our worries faded away.
The rest of the day was fun. We stopped on the river moorings (breasted four deep) and enjoyed bacon butties before a short briefing on the day. Mark Langley of Waterways World joined us for the river section, and he took the helm, little knowing that only two days earlier, the motor didn’t work and the generator made a terrible din!
At Bevere Lock we swapped Mark Langley for David Johns and travelled up the Droitwich canals playing with the generator, doing some stealth boating and generally playing with our new toy. To make it even more fun, many friends of Ortomarine came out to work the locks for us, so we made our way upstream in luxury. David Johns was kind enough to describe cruising on Perseverance as “the quietest boating I have ever experienced. This is phenomenal.” His blog about the trial was very comprehensive and can be found here.
David Johns filming and Rob Howdle trying to look relaxed as we approach the motorway tunnel
The results of the trial are the subject of a report which I have prepared and, at the time of writing, are being proof read before publication.
After the trial cruise, we had arranged to relocate the boat to our “home” marina at Ventnor. Due to school holidays, this journey started the day after the cruise.
The relocation was carried out in two stages, first with No 1 son and his family working up Birmingham and along the Birmingham and Fazeley canal to Fazeley Mill Marina (who kindly accepted us with no notice!). The second stage was with No 2 son and his family, who brought us down the Coventry Canal and round to our home marina at Ventnor.
Descending Farmer's Bridge flight in Birmingham
During these cruises we experienced warm, hot and very hot weather and we started to experience problems with cooling the generator. After some experiments, these can be summarized as:
The skin tank cooling is fine if the boat is moving, even just crawling along, but if the boat is stationary the power has to be reduced to avoid overheating.
If the cratch is completely closed, in hot weather the air cooling the generator can make the cratch unbearably hot and, because the air intake was also put in the cratch (to avoid the risk of waves washing into the generator space) this exacerbates our overheating problems.
Currently we are managing the situation by setting current limits of 25A (6kW) when moving and 15A (3.6kW) when stationary. We also keep one side of the cratch open, unless the weather is cool and we are looking to dry our clothes, in which case the heated cratch is simply a wonderful drying space.
Some calculations of heat loss for the possible different solutions are coming up. When I studied heat transfer at university, my tutor described this as the “science of variable constants”. Hey, let’s get this blog finished first…
The ability to control the motor down to practically motionless gives a new dimension to boating. There is no audible noise from the motor at all, a tiny sound from rotating machinery sounds at higher powers (which I think comes from the thrust bearing). The dominant sounds come from the wash and, at the top end, from air sucked across the uxter plate into the prop.
Most thrilling is that, at a gentle walking pace, the boat is completely silent. Not just a bit quiet- I am talking stealth boating. When David Johns (of Cruising the Cut fame) was walking on the towpath beside the boat, we asked if he had shoes with quieter soles, as all we could hear was the crunch of gravel under his feet.
One special trick is to arrive in a lock operated by a volunteer lock keeper without making a sound. There is a special moment when they realise something is missing, and you can see the look of puzzlement on their faces.
The typical question from other boaters who spot that we are electric is “how long do your batteries last” or “what’s your range?”. My favourite conversation went like this:
Boater: How long do your batteries last?
Me: Until I recharge them with the generator
Boater: Which generator?
Me: The one that’s running now
Boater: I can’t hear it
In fact, he was sitting on the deck and generator had passed within a few feet of him, with the exhaust pointing towards his boat, just before the start of the conversation.
Moving onto another topic, the Bowthruster is a mixed blessing. It certainly makes manoeuvring the boat far easier, and we sometimes wind the boat using just the bow thruster, and it makes reversing into our mooring really easy. To be clear, I would never have a boat without one now, and the size of our thruster (76kgf) is fine for the size of boat (62ft).
The unit itself is a Vetus BOWA0761 and it shares a large 12V battery with the generator. This battery is used for generator starting and provides the reliable power source for the boat technical systems. The generator’s alternator and a feed from the 48V batteries keep the 12V batteries topped up. We did look at using a 24V thruster, but the additional cost of a generator with a 24V starter was prohibitive.
Once, we ran the thruster hard for a lengthy period to turn the boat, and the battery low voltage warning came on, but soon after the current drain stopped, the battery voltage recovered. Apart from this single, quite understandable, instance this shared battery arrangement has worked well.
Now, I said this was a mixed blessing. There have been some downsides to this installation.
The control unit failed after one use. We were not, we learned, the only people to experience Vetus equipment failures like this. Fortunately, Ortomarine had a control unit in stock and they replaced the faulty unit immediately, but it should not have failed so quickly.
The loudest thing on the boat after the generator was the bow thruster cooling fan. This not only was annoyingly loud, but once it had started it ran continuously and would not stop. The solution was to disconnect the fan because Vetus advised that it was not necessary.
The bow thruster has to be turned on individually by pushing a button to get an annoying peeping noise, then press the button again – it doesn’t just start when you turn on the power.
Worst of all, the thruster turns itself off after 24 minutes of inactivity. This means that in an emergency when you suddenly need to use it, the b***** thing doesn’t work. Imagine driving a car with brakes that only work if you keep using them. Go down a motorway for half an hour; when the car in front slows suddenly and you put your foot on the pedal, nothing happens. As a safety engineer, I have to say that this is an unacceptable design flaw.
My recommendation to anyone thinking about bow thrusters would be to fit one, but seek out a more reliable unit and one that, ideally, does not time out.
The propeller choice had been based on advice from a number of sources and I knew that the prop is oversized. The prop gives huge thrust at low speeds, but by the time the motor reaches about 650 rpm, it is torque limited. On the one hand, the power output is limited, but on the other hand, the low motor speed thrust is excellent.
I am in the process of doing some detailed measurements of the boat to try to establish an algorithm for optimizing the prop size. This is beyond the scope of this blog, and will have to wait for another day.
Having looked at the technical issues, let me describe what we learned about the hull from our early journeys before going into the boat to look at the interior fitout.
The stern layout has worked astonishingly well. Our initial layout was done with cardboard and upturned buckets in the garage, and the final boat is a beautiful implementation of this. The key issues we were looking for were safety for those stepping onto and off of the boat, clearance from the helmsman, good seating for the crew, useful lockers, fully opening doors and a comfortable taff rail. All these have worked out well, in particular the TekDeck surface.
Scrubbing the decks
The only issue we have had is that the throttle, which has no real stiffness to its movement, can be nudged when walking on or off the port side of the boat. A minor inconvenience, and the comfortable operating height of the throttle outweighs the inconvenience.
We had a dodger fitted to restrain dogs and grandchildren - this folds back to clip under the taff rail for access.
There is even a space for a cuppa
The below deck storage is excellent, housing the two electric bikes with ease, as well as (currently) a dog bath, bike panniers, four life jackets, spare tools ...and more beer. All this, and there is ample room to step down onto the swim covers. As well as the deck boards which take the weight as you stand in the stern, PVC matting has been added so that the bikes can be slid sideways without scratching either the bikes or the swim metalwork.
The hull has been built with good width gunwales and excellent finger grips to the handrail, both of which make walking along the side of the boat comfortable and safe.
We have small cylindrical fenders on both sides of the boat. This means that when we enter a wide lock, the helmsman can put the boat on either side and is equally protected. We may have difficulty in some narrow locks with lack of width, but only time will tell.
For night moorings, we found the small fenders were not soft enough for comfort. In particular, when boats pass by too fast, the moored boat can build up significant speed and come to a sharp stop against the fender. To resolve this, we first bought two fender hooks cut out of white plastic and fitted inflated fenders. This turned out to be disastrous. When the boat moved along the mooring, the fender rotated between the boat and the side of the canal. As a result, the fender rope pulled tight and dragged the bottom of the fender hook along the side of the boat. The sharp edge of the plastic the bit into the paint and, after only one night, had carved through all the paint layers and down to the bare metal.
The three stages of fixing this were:
Replace the hooks cut from plastic sheet with black moulded ones. These needed a little fettling to remove mould flash.
Hooks moulded in blue plastic – all things must be colour coordinated.
Lining these with the rubber from a pair of old Joules wellingtons. Not only are these a suitable rubber compound, they had a soft fabric lining.
The offending white hook, complete with tell-tale blue paint trace, black moulded version and the prototype Joules-lined hook.
We also made another curious mistake. On one evening we placed a fender too close to the generator exhaust. The hot gas softened the fender plastic which blew outwards until the fender was now “T” shaped. It did not explode, but we took the precaution of retiring it from duty.
We were a bit concerned that the bow area, with a flat surface across the full width of the boat, would not be as useful as the traditional layout with locker seats on each side. In fact, it has turned out to be well used by those lounging about on cushions or assorted inflatables, and small children love playing games on the decking. We have found it very convenient to be able to walk across the bow on one level.
The flat bow deck can be used for lounging or playing
The complex installation of generator, three silencers, bow thruster, heater, batteries etc. in the bow has been accomplished exceptionally well by Ortomarine. It is all very neat, accessible and robust. The three-part silencing works just as designed and tested in my garage, with almost no sound coming from the exhaust.
This description works forwards through the boat, so a quick look at the "February Update" blog may help with orientation until I get around to a better video, or the photos on Ortomarine's website.
The sliding hatch cover is wide, long and moves easily. This, together with a three-step ladder make entry to the boat really easy. The layout of the electronics is neat and tidy, and it is here that the lithium batteries come into their own, hidden behind the galley rubbish bin.
Not a photo of steps, doors or bin; a picture of the "invisible" batteries
The galley itself works well, and we are particularly pleased with the Qettle hot water tap. This was chosen because it saves the space of a kettle, but having boiling water on tap means that the helmsman can make a round of tea and coffee in the time it takes to go through a lock.
Roma made a small mistake with the induction hob. She took one of her large pans to the boat, only to find it was stainless steel and hence didn’t work on the hob. Hey ho, it’s a learning process.
The washing machine is small, but the load has proved adequate to keep the crew dressed in fresh clothes in the hottest of weather. In wet weather, the heated cratch has proved an ideal drying area.
Star of the galley is the Ikea fridge which, like the Tardis and Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, holds far more than you might expect.
The Ortomarine dinette has already been used in at least a dozen different configurations. Its flexibility keeps astonishing us. We keep the large table top stored against the side wall of the saloon area, which is more convenient than in the back of the wardrobe which was the original plan.
Five watch Paw Patrol
Chaise Longue, and ample space for a high chair
The only drawback of the geometry of Perseverance is that the gunwales, which Alexander Boats make wider than on Tim Tyler hulls, reduce the shoulder room for diners. One of those things that you can’t have both ways. When I am in the boat, I wish the gunwales were narrower. When I am walking down the boat, I am glad they are wide.
This is excellent for the two of us, with Stressless chairs and footstools. When there are more on board, we easily adapt the dinette seating to suit the group. The design therefore works, as one goal was to accommodate crews from 2 to 6 in number.
The small cupboard is large enough to hold books and a bottle or two for nightcaps. The Sonos Beam audio fills the saloon and galley with good quality sound, and the 26in TV is the right size for the viewing distance.
There is a tiny loo between the saloon and the guest bedroom. It has proved popular with guests who adopt it with alacrity.
Little loo. Small but perfectly formed!
No narrowboat blog is complete without a reference to toilets. Our experiments with the Compoost loo have been borne out in practice; it is very easy to use, in all senses, and doesn’t smell at all in the boat. Roma and I have found that we drink more than most visitors (think hourly cups of tea for most of the day) and we fill the urine bottle in one day. This makes emptying a routine task and we fertilize the hedgerow when we can, or use Elsan emptying points elsewhere.
The loo has a high level alert which is connected to the boat’s monitoring system. It brings on an alarm in the form of a red warning on the screen at the stern and a single chime. We thought about having a higher level of alarm, such as repeating bongs or even a continuous bell, but being elderly types who nip to the loo in the night, we didn’t want to wake everyone in the wee small hours. Therefore it has become habit to check the level before going to bed. We keep a spare bottle, so we can change over and empty the full one when convenient.
The bucket collects solids for about a week before it needs to be changed, and we currently double bag this and put it into a normal bin. By each toilet we have both a loo roll and a wet wipe packet, which my wife tells me is for wiping off "skidmarks". 'nuff said.
One aspect of compostable loos which is often overlooked is the lack of water required. Because there is no toilet flushing, we have found that our 410 Litre water tank can last four people a week – depending upon their showering habits mostly. No toilet flushing and a good water level monitor mean that we spend far less time worrying about filling up the water tank.
The middle bedroom was designed to change between bunks, cross double bed or workroom and this has worked well.
Three views of the Guest Bedroom
One aspect I am particularly pleased with is the amount of storage available for couples staying with us. As well as a small wardrobe, they have three huge shelves and, when the foot of the cross double is stowed in the upper location, an empty bunk to dump stuff during the day.
One of our daughters-in-law has contracted Long Covid, and she can spend long periods during the day unable to get up. The middle bedroom, with blinds and doors closed, and with the bed half-made, provided a quiet, secluded space for her to nap. When she felt a little brighter, she could lounge on a mound of cushions in the cratch, watching the world go by.
The bathroom is splendid, especially the shower. Persy has a domestic water pump (silent, of course!) giving steady pressure and this, coupled with high quality shower brassware give a shower as good as you get at home. Coupled with a calorifier only inches from the shower fitting, there is no delay in hot water coming through.
The large basin sits snugly under the gunwale and there is lots of storage space.
OK – the remotely controlled coloured lights under the mirror are pure bling, but why not?
Bathroom with blue lighting selected
We had water droplet windows made specially for the boat, by Kate Webley, which are very attractive and give a good amount of light. My only observation is that, from the bathroom (and small loo) you can't see the outside world at all, which we hadn't thought about when we commissioned the windows.
The little PIR light in the skirting board is one of four on the boat, which mean you can wander about at night without having to turn any lights on. Brilliant, in all senses of the word.
Roma and I love each other dearly, but not enough to reduce the 5ft bed width to which we have become accustomed. We modelled our bedroom unashamedly after Crick winner “Two Hoots”, and it works really well.
Main Bedroom with soft furnishings
A word of caution about cross-beds. We are on the shorter side of average (I'm 5ft 6in, Roma is 5ft 2in) and we are OK with this cross-bed. However, I have bumped my head on the gunwale trim, and I often feel the wall at my feet. The "7ft" narrowboat is, in fact, a lot less than that on the inside. The hull is a couple of inches narrower to fit in a lock, then the thickness of the steel, insulation, walling panels encroach on both sides. I would not recommend this arrangement for anyone significantly taller.
In terms of storage, the bedroom fits in a huge wardrobe for Roma and a minute one for me. There is a large bedside table for Roma and a tiny letterbox for me. Roma has shelves in the wardrobe, bedside drawers and a large upper cupboard, while I have a small upper cupboard. You get the picture. Happy wife, happy life!
Our builders, Ortomarine, have a well deserved reputation for technical innovation, coupled with modern interior designs (sometimes a bit too white and grey for our taste), but I think the quality of their carpentry is often overlooked. The finish and attention to detail in this fitout was as good as we saw on any of the Crick 2019 show boats.
Roma's side with storage everywhere
Because of the composting loos, there is no holding tank for sewage under the bed, and the outboard space, with a lift-up lid, is filled with bedding for all the permutations of guests. Upper bunk, lower bunk and 4ft 6in double bed sheets, duvets (winter and summer), duvet covers, pillows etc. all take up a huge volume. The centreline space, under the extending bed base, is mostly drawers but also houses a plinth heater. This takes up less space than a radiator, and keeps the corridor clearer.
In an ultimate display of nerdy engineerdom, I put the generator controller in the bedroom. My argument was that it gives the electronics a more “comfortable” ride than sitting in the machinery space with the generator but also it means we can check on the generator without having to go out of the cabin. In time, all of the things worth monitoring will be replicated on the boat system at the stern but there are a couple of parameters which have proved tricky to transfer so for the meantime it’s good to be able to access the controller easily.
This gives me a link to talk about the Ortomarine boat control system. This brings together many elements of the boat into a single touch-screen display panel. To my bemusement, Rob asked me how I would like the information displayed and together we took the format which has evolved from one boat to the next and tailored it to my view of the boat. Honestly, I had not expected this degree of bespokeness, or, indeed, to add a word to the English language.
I think it's a bit much to delve into now, so I will write a post about the screens, with working screenshots, at a later date. After all, you must be exhausted by now.
Thanks for making it all the way to the end - I should offer a prize for your Perseverance!