A Boat Racing on Biodiesel, but Running Low on Money
It's a shame that something like this is happening. Although not as plentiful as other recources, it's a great way to get rid of waste products which otherwise would end up in a dump.
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 23 — In early July, Pete Bethune, an amateur sailor from New Zealand and a recent convert to environmentalism, stepped aboard his new $2.4 million speedboat, filled up the tank with a fuel made from animal fat and headed east from Auckland.
His goal was simple: to complete the fastest circumnavigation of the globe in a motorboat while using nothing but biodiesel, renewable fuel that can be made with salvaged French fry grease, refined soybean oil and other organic and recycled oils. The record attempt is due to start in March, from Barbados, after a North American tour this fall meant to test and publicize the boat — called the Earthrace — and raise money.
“I thought I’d have a sponsor give me $4 million and bankroll the whole thing,” said Mr. Bethune, 41. “And I still believe that.”
But somewhere between Hawaii (where the boat refueled on biodiesel made from the drippings of cruise liners’ deep fryers) and Vancouver (where it loaded up with fuel made from tallow, drawn from the hard fat of sheep and cattle), the Earthrace almost ran out of gas — at least financially.
For the last month, Mr. Bethune, a former oil exploration engineer, has been bobbing up and down the California coast, asking for contributions, from $5 donations to tour the boat to $50,000 to plaster a corporate logo on the side.
“My wife sent an e-mail saying they’re going to turn the lights out” at home, said Mr. Bethune, who has two children. “When you’re stressing your partner out like this, it’s hard.”
The project has only about $10,000 in the bank and is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Mr. Bethune says he has put $650,000 of his own money into the boat and spent another $650,000 borrowed from banks, friends and family. He sold a business he founded, sold his part in a forest plantation and mortgaged his home — three times.
“I thought it would just fall into place,” he said. “But we’re just keeping our heads above water.”
John Allen, the project’s one-man ground crew, has also been trying to find money. “There’s lots of irons in the fire but no one with a checkbook and pen poised,” said Mr. Allen, who, like Mr. Bethune, is an affable New Zealander. “But with a negligible budget, it’s been difficult to go full bore with this.”
Hotel rooms and fuel have been donated along the way, but things like rental cars have become a luxury. “I’ve been wearing the same shorts for three months,” Mr. Allen said. “It might be nice to get a new set.”
While the lack of money has done little to dampen Mr. Bethune’s ambitions, he says he understands why nautical sponsors can be hard to find. “The sight of a boat sinking with someone’s name on the side can be disconcerting,” he said.
Mr. Bethune said he first became interested in biodiesel several years ago while writing a paper on renewable fuels during studies for a master’s degree in Australia. He had had a passing knowledge of biodiesel while working on oil rigs in the North Sea and Libya, but as he learned more, he said, he “became a real convert.”
Around the same time, Mr. Bethune also happened across a little-known fact: the world record for circumnavigation of the globe by a powerboat is 75 days, set in 1998 by a British boat called the Cable & Wireless Adventurer. Mr. Bethune figured he could do it faster and, at the same time, raise awareness for his newfound cause.
His passion won over some early sponsors, including Cummins MerCruiser Diesel, which donated the engines; ZF Marine, which donated the boat’s gearboxes, propellers and engine controls; and Biodiesel Oils NZ, which gave Earthrace 15,000 gallons of fuel (about five tanks’ worth) and $30,000. Panasonic donated $150,000 worth of video equipment, and Caliber Boats built the boat at cost, fusing it together using Kevlar and carbon.
The Earthrace project has also relied heavily on the kindness of strangers, including a rotating, all-volunteer crew. Because Mr. Bethune had never taken a boat out of the sight of land, the Earthrace has two experienced sailors helping with the open-ocean sailing, where waves the size of houses can challenge the most able mariner.
With three hulls and a pair of state-of-the-art engines, the Earthrace, which looks a bit like a large metallic swan, is designed to cut through waves up to 50 feet high without slowing and can reach speeds of 40 knots, which boating experts say could help in its record attempt.
“The fact that it’s a wave cutter and a tri-hull, you’re talking about high speeds here,” said Stuart Reininger, a writer for Motor Boating magazine and an expert on power boats. “I’m sure they could do it.”
But running on biodiesel, which is harder to find, would complicate things, Mr. Reininger said. “You’re talking about a fuel that doesn’t have supply stations everywhere,” he said.
The Earthrace is 78 feet long, but the living space is cramped, just a closet-size room with four bunks. The galley is similarly basic, with only a kettle, a microwave and a toaster. There is no shower, a fact that Mr. Bethune said added a certain musk to the journey.
“You kind of lose your sense of smell,” he said. “But then when you get off, people are like, ‘Oy, mate, this boat stinks.’ ”
Then there are the curious smells that follow biodiesel vehicles in general, often reflecting the fuel’s origins. “You may smell doughnuts, you may smell French fries,” said Josh Tickell, of the advocacy group Biodiesel America. “People say they smell fried catfish, but that might be a stretch.”
Biodiesel gives off fewer emissions than regular oil-based diesel. It is also nontoxic and biodegradable, making it an ideal fuel for boats, Mr. Tickell said. “It biodegrades in water as fast as sugar,” he said.
In Santa Cruz, where the Earthrace arrived during a Friday afternoon happy hour, the reaction was typical: a mix of awe and confusion. Children scrambled for a look, while adults scratched their heads.
“That is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Bruce McClymont, 48, of San Jose. But when told the Earthrace’s mission, Mr. McClymont chuckled.
“It’s a boat going around the world? So what?” he said. “People have been doing that for 500 years.”
Mr. Bethune remains optimistic and says he sees positive signs everywhere. The project’s Web site, www.earthrace.net, has been getting about 20,000 hits a day, he said, compared with about 2,000 a day before the boat left New Zealand. And on a good day, the Earthrace has reaped up to $4,000 from curious onlookers.
Mr. Bethune estimates he needs $500,000 to achieve his circumnavigation, a goal he says he intends to meet.
“We’re getting there, mate,” he said. “It’s been a long, hard journey, and it continues to be a long, hard journey. But we’re making it happen the best we can.”