Sailboat Throws Motor Overboard, Adds Sensor Array

For those not familiar with sailing, it might seem like an obsolete way to get around on the water. This isn’t 1492 anymore, and it’s pretty easy to go out and get a boat with a motor to get where you need to go. Sailboats, however, are still one of the most efficient ways to travel. There are essentially no fuel costs, and maintenance on them is often easier than on a boat with an engine. Not to mention the fun involved in flying a hull on a catamaran. Anyway, if you’re [gwilken], you can bring your sailboat even further into modern times by building your own sensor array for it.

The ultimate goal of this project was to get all gauges and sensors reporting data to an iPad, rather than to random gauge clusters around the ship. This includes environmental conditions, speed, and motor status (most larger sailboats have a motor for getting around the marina). A Raspberry Pi ties it all together, including a GPS antenna for monitoring location. [gwilken] also includes a WiFi antenna and a cell antenna for maintaining a network connection for reporting all of this information. With this connectivity, he can also control some functions of the boat as well.

[gwilken] made the decision to ditch the conventional gas motor for a more energy-efficient electric motor. This also has the perk of being essentially maintenance-free, and can even charge his battery in regen mode while his boat is under sail. The sailboat is now fully equipped for the 21st century, in a similar way to another boat’s gauge cluster that was recently featured.

51 thoughts on “Sailboat Throws Motor Overboard, Adds Sensor Array

      1. I looked through the revision history of the article, and can’t see what @John is referring to. I think we got it right, for once. :)

        That said, I wouldn’t be willing to get into a bar fight about data being plural or a mass singular noun. “The data was gathered” vs “The data were gathered”? Meh. “Data on users’ habits is key to Google’s…” sounds better than “data are…”. I think it depends on whether you are talking about multiple data points or the body of data in the abstract, or taken as a whole.

        1. I would still say “a data point” and also “the data points”. The great thing about language (especially English) is that whatever people naturally end up using will become correct, as long as the meaning is conveyed. But now I’m dangerously close to being exposed as a linguistics nerd.

          Also, this particular example doesn’t even get into Data as a sentient being, and whether or not he has all of the rights of any other Federation citizen. I think that’s the more pressing issue.

          1. For something like 99% of people, data is a singular collective noun, and something like 99.9% of the time the word is used, there is no identifiable datum for the data, so using it as a plural may be seen as just a way to imply superiority. Now in a scientific experimental environment, where there are identifiable datum points, that is different

          1. The linked article, not Hackaday. I dare not comment on the English in Hackaday articles for several reasons, the main one being I like reading the site and the second probably being I have better things to do. :)

    1. The English language has no official definition, only common use. So stating these “rules” as fact is wrong in and of itself. I know it’s in vogue in the data science world to use data/datum for plural/singular, but in common English that’s exceedingly rare. Nor does it make a lot of sense. It’s entirely reasonable (and common) to discuss a singular set of data points, and refer to it as “this is my data”. (For what it’s worth, my background is data science.)

      1. This is true but under no circumstance is “datas” correct.

        Common usage is the only way to define words in English and common usage decides what is accepted as correct but never when that common usage is wrong.

        Now I am going to get nerdish. :)

        I will drown, no one shall save me << A statement that signals an intention to commit suicide by drowning.
        I shall drown, no one will save me << A statement that should be interpreted as a plea for help.
        The former will never replace the latter and vice versa, in English.

        Ay is the name of the first letter of the alphabet.
        A is the indefinite article.
        Generally more in the US than in the UK but becoming more prevalent of late, in the UK "ay" is being used as the indefinite article, it will never become "correct".

        Aitch is the name of the eighth letter of the alphabet.
        I have no idea what Haitch is.

        Nerd hat removed. :)

        Language is a fantastic subject and the logic is straight out of mathematics once you learn the basic rules. This is why the rules are important and should be obeyed. If everyone spoke and wrote correctly there would be few lawyers because there could be no ambiguity. What a glorious world that would be.

        Nerd hat removed. :)

          1. Presumably they would all have different names. He is an android called Data, several of them would be called androids and would have whatever name one chose to give each of them. Data, note the capital letter at the beginning, do I really need to go into that! :)

          1. I am not being a pedant. I merely made the statement and would have left it at that. I clearly missed the joke, perhaps you could explain it to me. If there is indeed a joke in the statement related to multiple instances of Data then clearly the incorrect use of the capital has led me to an incorrect conclusion, oh wait, that’s what I have been saying all along.

  1. Great project. I’ve been getting into sailing lately, and it’s full of ‘hackers’ repurposing stuff for their needs. Of cause they don’t skimp on safety items, the sea can kill you very quickly. Just watch a guy who picked up some junk that had washed up on the beach and made a cutting table from when he’s fishing, something he said he was going to buy at the next port.

    The most common hacks is the frames built to hold solar panels. And don’t forget the hacks that fix a boat in the middle of the ocean when your only other option is to sink (and die).

    There is a wealth of hacking talent going unrecognised in my boating community.

    1. My aunt used to know someone who would sew and sell “drift anchors” (I think?) to other boaters in the same lake – essentially an underwater soft parachute that was designed to hold your boat in place without being an actual anchor on the lake bed. I am sure there’s a “real” product for it, but boating still has a long tradition of DIY solutions from construction on up.

  2. As a sailor, I have been interested for a while in electric motors for sailboats, charged either by shore power or by solar and wind power depending on the circumstances. The interesting thing is that in this usage, lead acid batteries have an advantage over lithium. Apart from the fact that lithium batteries don’t like water and have to be carefully protected on a boat, most single hull sailboats use heavy ballast low down in the hull or at the bottom of a keel. Some use water ballast. That ballast is often a big chunk of lead. It would be interesting to see if lead acid cells could be formed into a keel for ballast. Two for the price of one! As lead acid batteries vent hydrogen which is lighter than air, the batteries would have to be carefully vented but it may even be possible to save the hydrogen for cooking. An interesting use case where the battery weight could actually be an advantage.

    1. Lead-acid batteries don’t last forever, so you have the expense and hassle of replacing them every 5 to 8 years. A 100% electric powered boat is OK for motoring in/out of harbour, but cruising sailboats often need to motor for extended periods, so all-electric isn’t yet suitable here.

      Batteries with higher energy density are required before the electric-only sailboat is truly feasible.

      1. 5 to 8 years isn’t bad so long as they are designed to be replaceable. Some sailboats have a “bulb” at the bottom the keel for ballast to get the best moment. This could just be unbolted and a new one installed quite easily. For extended range a motor generator could be used, rather like a hybrid car. Given that the objective is to spend most of the time sailing, that gives a long time to recharge using wind, solar or auxillary power so the charge rate can be quite low. My McGregor uses water ballast and is capable of 20mph with the keel up and no ballast. At such speed I rarely use more than 5 gallons in a day, even if I have to motor just about all day. Puttering around at 5 knots should use much less than that. I don’t know what kilowatt hour that correspond to but I would think that 1500lb of lead acid battery, which is the weight of the water ballast, should be able to supply well over 100 kWh using current technology. That should be enough for just about all situations.

        1. You’re looking at around 35 Wh/kg for a lead acid battery so around 23kWh of capacity. Probably enough to putter around a marina or trawl for an afternoon but not enough to get terribly far without a recharge.

          1. Whether it will happen is different from could it happen. Given that true sailboats, as opposed to motor sailboats, shouldn’t need that much range in a given time period and given that solar and wind power can be used, it looks feasible. Now whether it becomes commercially viable is another matter. It could well be a good niche market for “green” sailors.

        2. There’s a bunch of technical issues to solve regarding your replaceable battery “Bulb”. I’ll just give you one – the sailboat market is so damn small and segmented that it’s very unlikely that any manufacturer would invest the time and energy to engineer and produce a cost-effective submergable “bulb” battery system. Right now, just about all current “marine” batteries actually come from other markets – trucks, RVs, battery backup systems, golf carts…

          Diesel-electric hybrid systems have been undergoing testing in marine applications for at least 5 years now. (Google marine hybrid and “Nigel Calder” for an exhaustive review) It’s interesting technology and there are a few successful applications, but overall, for the average cruising sailor, the efficiencies and other benefits of a diesel-electric hybrid do not outweigh the added cost and complexity. Right now, it’s very hard to beat the efficiency, simplicity and reliability of the basic small diesel engine. This won’t change til the energy-density of stored electricity gets closer to that of diesel fuel.

          1. That would be cool. Of course, given that the idea of a sailboat is to use the wind, wind power would be a fitting way to go. That may seem counter-intuitive, given that you need a motor when there is no wind but that is why you have batteries.

          2. Sailboats actually “fly” and normally go faster than the wind speed so onboard there is usually (not downwind) apparent wind velocity greater than the wind speed. This can, and is, used to power wind turbines. I would really like to use a cross wind kite to generate electricity but that is hard to do when sailing. You could also use the electric motor as a generator but that, of course, would increase drag. If there is enough wind and you are already sailing at hull speed, that wouldn’t matter, though.

          3. Pretty sure North Sails is testing just that. Most real cruisers use solar and wind power to keep deep cycle batteries topped off. A good amount of advances in this area.

            The title of the article is misleading. He went from gas to electric. The problem is modern marina design. I have to have an engine to get in and out if my slip. With how tightly the docks are arranged, sailing in and out becomes a risk.

            Internet connectivity is not an issue for a “lakie” like me, but offshore it can be a problem. The advances in electronics are exciting and I can use a tablet instead of a $1500 chart plotter. Windfinder, various weather apps and Navionics Boat USA are my goto for sailing. Oh, and Drag Queen. A terrific app that alerts me if my anchor is dragging.

          1. Hackadave, the wind power becomes a go to when at anchor/moored. Wind and solar are very common amongst true blue water cruisers.

            Lethoa, my sails are often bathe in sunlight. Really depends on course and time of day/year. Again, most cruisers end up moored more than sailing, so when the sails are down and showed, that’s when a traditional wind/solar solution works best.

  3. The sailing world is absolutely full of mad “hackers”; mechanically adept people with a lot of time to think about various sorts of technical challenges. LED lighting, solar/wind chargers and all the rest of it have been incorporated into sailboats for decades. The challenge for an electric propulsion system remains one of energy density in competition with efficient and very very durable diesel auxiliaries that will burn ~ 0.5 liters of fuel per hour – can you motor at hull speed for several days on a charge if you have to, particularly in foggy weather? Will it still be running after 20 years?

    For we lake sailors, the challenge for the growing field of electric outboards offers promise, but again we have to be sure we have the capacity to run for shelter when a storm comes up (not uncommon here in the blustery Midwest), especially since the electric units are more than twice as expensive as gas and certainly won’t last as long — my outboard is 30 years old and running strong.

    One of the more promising outboard/saildrive suppliers has been Torqueedo ( – I have no connection to them – and one should have a look at Nigel Calder’s work on larger hybrid drives (good start here:

  4. Sailing is the perfect break from overdosing on technology. When you’re on the water, zipping along in a nice breeze, it’s a ‘flow’ state. So I try to not encumber that state by the intrusion of too much technology.

    But yes I’ve been following some initiatives like OpenCPN and SignalK. The main thing that’s stopped me from adopting more of those systems is the current lack of a reasonably.priced sunlight-readable, weatherproof tablet or monitor. Ipads, Android tablets are simply too fragile or unusable under all marine conditions. The few available industrial tablet options are so expensive that the resulting system is as expensive as purpose-built marine instrument systems, which are still more robust and dependable.

    1. I watched the TV coverage of this years America’s Cup in San Diego, and the boats all had lots of displays which looked to be LCD. Also the skippers were using a handheld unit which they seemed to be able to read at any angle in the bright sunlight. E-ink maybe? I know you can now by such displays, but can you get them with touch? Interesting times.

  5. Some day the HaD archives will be scanned for research and cause some confusion. The AI’s will be wondering why we carry on about the dangers of AI at the same time our cars and boats are making decisions about what motor to use or throw it out all together.

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