Some say home is where you hang your hat. Michael and Joanne Young say home is where you hang your PV modules—and your wind genny. As they have found, you can travel and have all the comforts of home by bringing along your own power company.
When Mike Young imagined his dream home, his fantasy included one mast, two sails, a wind turbine, and a solar-electric system. “I pictured my wife and myself on a sailboat surrounded by blue water. I saw us enjoying sunrises and sunsets day after day, breathing in the salt air while listening to the ocean and watching the sails fill with wind,” says Mike, a native of Springfield, Vermont. “I saw us living independently.”
Fed up with Vermont’s cold, dark winters, Mike fell in love with the idea of escaping to the warm, sunny Caribbean for part of the year. An avid sailor who spent many years sailing on Lake Champlain and crewing on friends’ boats, he had the know-how to pull it off. All he needed was an ocean-worthy vessel and a good first mate. “When he first told me the idea, I thought he was crazy,” says Joanne, his wife of 40 years. “But he was serious.”
The couple bought Orion—a 37-foot sloop—and upgraded its navigational, steering, and safety systems for ocean cruising. They sold the family’s retail propane business and embraced the idea of early retirement at age 52. In 2000, Mike and Joanne made their maiden voyage to the Caribbean islands. From Shelburne, Vermont, they took Orion south to the Hudson River, which brought them to New York City. From there, they followed the coast south to Virginia, where they departed on the 11-day voyage to Virgin Gorda.
The first trip gave newbie cruisers Mike and Joanne the chance to get a feel for their energy needs. They left home with a diesel engine set up to charge a 12-volt, 366 amp-hour battery bank that powered the boat’s electrical loads. Though the engine worked well for cruising when winds were low and produced more than enough energy for battery-charging, it was less than ideal for generating energy for their day-to-day needs—lighting, refrigeration, and hot water, and for small household appliances, the navigation equipment, and communication radios.
Running the engine a few hours each day to recharge the battery bank burns about 1 gallon of diesel fuel—only about 90 cents on the islands—so it wasn’t the expense that bothered Mike and Joanne. It was the fumes and the noise. A diesel engine likes to be run hard and hot, preferably over long periods with a heavy load. But when it’s used as a generator only, the engine doesn’t operate at its optimal temperature and burns inefficiently, producing more pollution per energy output.
To add insult to injury, the warm Caribbean temperatures doubled the energy requirements of the refrigerator and freezer—two of the largest and most critical demands on the batteries. Because they wanted to avoid paying for electric hookups at marinas, Mike and Joanne found that they needed to run the engine at least twice a day—about an hour during the day and an hour at night—to charge the batteries and meet their electrical loads.
“Have you ever heard or smelled a diesel engine?” Mike says. “There was no room in my sailing fantasy for a smoky, noisy diesel engine and all its pollution. The engine ruined one too many cocktail hours on the deck. I looked around and saw other boats with solar modules and wind turbines, and knew what I had to do.”