Traveling to the northernmost human settlement on Earth to do a boat test, a few hundred miles from the North Pole, seems like overkill. Unless you’re testing a boat-motor package that could seriously advance sustainable boating over the next five years.
Also, how can you refuse a test on a boat named Kvitbjorn– translated from Norwegian to polar bear – in some of the most beautiful and remote waters in the world?
Robb Report was one of the first publications invited to test the 50-foot Marell M15, an aluminum-hulled vessel originally designed as a fast patrol vessel for cruising in arctic waters, where water temperatures regularly drop to about 28.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or freezing. With its one-of-a-kind diesel-electric hybrid propulsion, Kvitbjorn will be used as a high-end tourist vessel to transport guests around the local ice floes and explore the fjords in “silent” mode.
We had been warned to bring boots, parkas, balaclavas and heated gloves for the test as the wind chill had hit 30 below the previous week. At the docks in Longyearbyan, Svalbard, the main settlement of the Arctic Ocean island archipelago, other boats had large ice cubes hanging from the hulls. By early May, the rest of the world was thawing out, but local tour groups were still driving snowmobiles and dog sleds across the white tundra. The fjords around us were white, magnificent.
Kvitbjorn was originally planned to be powered by three to five high-powered outboards, which would give her an impressive speed of 55 mph. But it wouldn’t be the most carbon-efficient boat in an archipelago that has been preserved by an international treaty to allow its reindeer, sea lions, walruses and polar bears to avoid the environmental degradation of the rest of the planet.
It’s a magical place, we soon discovered it, sailing from the village of about 2,000 people towards the empty waters and the arid landscape. At the edge of a glacier, the ocean had a crystalline formation of ice across the surface, creating a beautiful symmetrical pattern. Farther out, a wall of sea ice blocked the channel to a fjord, and beyond that a walrus was sunning itself on land.
As well as reducing carbon emissions, the idea behind electric-diesel hybrid propulsion was that you could leisurely cruise on battery power for hours at a time. This allows the ship to enter environmentally sensitive areas.
“We decided to move away from speedboats due to the expectations of our customers, who want the whole trip on the boat to be more sustainable,” said Tore Hoem, director of adventures at Hurtigruten Svalbard, the tourism company who ordered Kvitbjorn– who had, just a day earlier, been delivered and was now officially Hoem’s baby.
Volvo worked with Sweden’s Marell Boats to create this one-of-a-kind hybrid package, incorporating twin D4 33-DPI engines with two 70kW electric motors powered by 1000kW battery packs. The most difficult task had been to reconfigure the rear part of the boat to make room for the huge batteries. There were also new technologies that needed to be developed because of the icy waters in the area. Battery compartments, for example, had to be heated rather than cooled, as they would in warmer climates.
“If it works here, it will work anywhere,” Hoem said. The new system worked very well. We spent a few hours crossing the archipelago, then idling around the mouth of the fjord, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ever-elusive polar bear. While there are 3,000 in the archipelago, and residents are required by law to carry a gun outside of town in case they are attacked, although sightings are rare.
When we got closer to land, Hoem put it on silent, which wasn’t exactly silent. The idea is for the boat to operate quietly, so guests can enjoy the wilderness without any signs of human intrusion. But Volvo technicians, who had never heard the boat running in silent mode, were startled by the noise of the gears driving the electric motors. It wasn’t as loud as with the diesels, of course, but it was annoying.
Yet there was nothing quite like being in this winter wonderland, a small research vessel being the only other boat in sight, and the tundra just beyond. The sun was out, and with no wind, it was rather warm while bundled up outside on the cockpit, although my fingers started going numb within a minute when I took the gloves off for the photos. So maybe it wasn’t that hot. But it was an incredible feeling to navigate in this desert.
The difference between Kvitbjorn and other diesel-electric propulsion systems on board other yachts is that this is not a unique case. It’s the first in what Volvo expects will be a long line of hybrid vessels that will use its systems, not just the motor/battery combo, but a whole integrated package from stern to helm. The company realizes that the only way to make carbon-reduced propulsion work in the real world of boating is to integrate the boat’s many functions into one system. This allows the boat owner to have a single source for repairs and warranties.
It’s a big challenge, but Volvo was first to market with integrated systems like joystick controls and assisted docking. This new boat could therefore represent the way forward for a nautical industry that has lagged behind the electric car industry and even commercial shipping.
“Our real job will be to industrialize the system,” says Johan Inden, president of the Volvo Penta Marine business unit, also on board for Kvitbjorninitial test of . “Our goal is to be able to upgrade the hybrid system to all our engines, which range from 13 to 5,400 horsepower.”
Linden expects the hybrid system to become a standard Volvo offering within three to five years, and that the “tipping point” where hybrid engines will outnumber conventional diesel and gasoline engines will be 2030. This seems a long way off, but it also means the water will be much greener by then.
In the meantime, tests will continue on Kvitbjorn as Volvo attempts to incorporate new technology. We spent a few more hours cruising the lonely waters and then returned to Longyearbyen where I had the opportunity to steer the boat, although I noticed Tore seemed a little nervous about the idea. to hand over his new toy. I promised him not to break it.
Kvitbjorn was a fun ride, largely because I didn’t have to do much to switch from traditional to hybrid drive. At a certain speed, it moved automatically. The system also had various modes on the helm console that allowed the captain to operate the boat with maximum efficiency, whether in quiet or high-end mode.
The boat will run 1,000 hours – far more than the average private motor yacht – over the six-month season, so Volvo will have plenty of test data to work with. Eventually, the hybrid application could be used on boats from 25 feet. runabouts at 120 feet. yachts, it would therefore cover the majority of pleasure craft.
“We anticipate this will be the new normal,” says Linden, who expects the system to be a sea change for recreational boating.
Sitting at the airport in Svalbard, I received an urgent text message from Jennifer Humphrey, Vice President of Marine Marketing at Volvo Penta, who was in Kvitbjorn. “Guess what,” he said. “We just saw a polar bear!”