The coast of the Algarve is touristic. And even though we are here in low season, it can be rather busy on anchoring spots. So, when we approached Alvor, we did not really know what to expect. Could we do some slow cruising and enjoy nature?
After having found a nice spot on the dry, we started to look around. Lots of people entered the beach on low tide. They were looking around as well. Some of our neighbor-yachties came around to know more on the Ya. But the other visitors of the bottom of the sea got down and started searching. We soon understood why.
We decided to stay a bit longer and just walked.
We learned that each spring and autumn, the estuary of the Alvor river becomes a staging post for thousands of migrating birds. It’s has been recognized by its designation as a Natura 2000 site, giving it special environmental and conservation protection.
The boardwalk and a cycle and jogging trail through part of the reserve allow all people to see and enjoy many of the wildlife species without damaging fragile habitats by walking directly through them. We saw a heron standing still, looking in the water and, all of a sudden: SNAP, he catches a fish.
The Alvor Estuary is one of the finest places on the Algarve for birdwatching. And we saw not only the grey and the white herons we were expecting, but also lots of storks.
Like we saw in Kent (read our article here) , the gentler farming practices of the Algarve tend to do less damage to wildlife habitats and species than do the modern intensive farming methods employed in other parts of Europe. And so, the farmland in the estuary is also home to many birds.
Very special with this precious Alvor nature preservation area is, that is freely accessible. This area is visited by hundreds or perhaps thousand people a week. They jog, walk, fish, catch clams. While other nature preservation areas are mostly closed tor activities. For example, the Dutch Wadden Sea, two hundred times bigger, has many restrictions to people, and large parts are completely closed to all.
What is the best? What we notice is that the people here, being part of nature, learn to respect nature.
And what about us? We love slow cruising to experience nature.
A Portugese friend advised us to sail the river Mira, because he thought it could be beautiful. The mouth is some 50 miles south of Lisbon. We found a river with a long history and a great, but “foolish” innovation.
Entering the river Mira, a navigational hurdle to start with
The mouth is poorly charted. There are no buoys to guide you in, because strong tidal currents and the breaking ocean waves constantly change the shape of the sandbanks. We had to cross the sandbanks and then go around rocks, partly washing. Then there was a narrow entrance.
We were before the mouth in the late afternoon. We could see the pretty town of Vila Nova de Milfontes on the hill. At that time the tide was pretty low and we could see the rocks clearly, as well as parts of the bank. The ocean brought considerable waves building up high and steep and the last ebb stream curled them before they fell broke on the bank. Entering now was dangerous, if not suicidal. So, we had to wait and try it the next morning. Lucky for us, the weather was calm so we could anchor at sea. However, the Ya was rolling in the waves, so we didn’t get much sleep. And we asked ourselves if the state of the sea in the mouth would be that much better with the flood. Would it be worthwile this sleepless night, or do we have to skip this beauty?
Next morning, when the flood was nearly on its end, and the water was high, we went to the mouth again. The state was completely different. No breakers, only at the rocks. We went over the banks flawlessly, with a wide curve around the rocks. Happy that we have engines and what great sailors were these Portugese in older days, doing everything under sail. Then suddenly we were in the peaceful river Mira. We anchored in front of Vila Nova de Milfontes.
Some history and the first renewable energy
In Vila Nova de Milfontes we were intrigued by a small image on a tourist board. Along the river Mira there used to be tidal mills.
We started a research and were invited to join an excursion of the regional association for cultural heritage to find out more. Mr. Antonio Quaresma is a historian and author of a book on River Mira and he started telling. Already in Roman times, 2000 years ago, there were small factories along the river for conserved fish. It was a very profitable market, until the fishes got smaller and were harder to catch. Also in that time, the balance of the ecosystem counted, although local.
In the Middle Ages the landlords ruled, because they could bring up enough military force to keep the Arabs away. This led to stability, which is the condition to innovate in big projects. We all know Vasco da Gama, and Columbus, who were the first sailors to undertake world voyages. Earlier we see that in the 1400s the windmill, the moinho do vento, enters on a larger scale. They were small and simple and they could catch the wind on every mountain top. At noon the wind from the sea picks up, and then the mill could run until the evening. They were mainly used to grind the grain and corn to flour. They were worth the investment, they could do the work of a few dozen workers.
Disadvantage of the windmill was that the wind did not always blow. Especially in the winter, one could need some reliability. Perhaps the water could help?
Moinho da Asneira or the fool’s mill
In about 1550 a project has started along the Mira. A big project. Idea was to create a mill that would work on the water tide. A tidal mill, a moinho de maré, also works in the winter and that would create a reliable, continued production of flour throughout the year. Some 2 miles upriver from Milfontes, there was a small side arm. They cut that off by building a dam, for a basin.
They made three holes in the dam. One hole in the dam is made to let the water in with the flood. With high water, they closed the hole. The two other holes in the dam were to let the water out when it was low tide. And here is the trick: they let the water come out through a nozzle. This would blow the water with great impact on a wheel lying on the bottom. This wheel had a shaft going up, to power a mill stone. They made two mills, to be extra reliable and to improve, innovate further. They built a little house over it, to keep the installation, the grain and the flour production dry en free of vermin.
Would it work? The rumor goes that nobody in the neighborhood believed in it, so they called this project ‘Asneira’. The ‘Moinho da Asneira’, The mill of a fool. The name never changed. Now there is a small resort around it, called Moinho da Asneira.
It turned out that it worked. From then this region has for a long time known the reliability on producing flour. A bit like the Ya: always make sure you have more than one source of energy and you can live fossil free reliably, even if you sail fossilfree around the world.
Renewable energy in Portugal
Does one learn from the past? You might think so. Portugal enrolls the E4 programme: Energy Efficiency and Endogenous Energy . So the efficiency for the reduction of what you use. This is just what the Ya is good at: reducing the use of energy.
And the endogenous way, so your own way, with your own means and measures for renewable energy, like the moinho do vento and the moinho do mare.
Does it work? In about 15 years time, Portugal gets 30% of her energy from its own renewable energy, and it is still rising. The fossil fuel consumption lowers about every year. In May 2016, all of Portugal’s electricity was produced renewable for a period of over four days, a landmark achievement for a modern European country. Not fools’ work at all.
It was in the early 19h century that the first coaches were motorized. Inventors like Thomas Davenport tried it out. He was too early, because there was no electric distribution system at that time and he went bankrupt.
The Prussian Moritz von Jacobi created the first real rotating electric motor in May 1834. He built one for a ship and it appeared to be remarkably strong; it could bring 14 people to the other side of a wide river.
For the development of the electric motors, we have to look at cars. The boats just follow. It took until about 1890 for the first electric driven cars to be built in mass production. These cars were popular: especially the ladies liked them, because they were clean, silent, endurable, reliable, comfortable and simple to use. And they did not stink. They also required less maintenance compared to petrol engines. If you would ask a physicist to choose an efficient way to make a wheel turn, he would choose the electric motor as the best option and the explosion motor as the worst. The petrol engine of 1900 had a maximum efficiency of hardly 20%.
But, the petrol engine had one strong advantage: you could travel longer distances with it. Since ages people have the habit to travel 1 ½ hour a day, and you don’t change that. And since 1900 the infrastructure of roads became much better, but the electricity net remained only good in the populated areas. So most people accepted that the petrol engine stank, was noisy, dirty, not endurable, uncomfortable, and complex. They also accepted that it was difficult to use, needed much maintenance, took a lot of space, and was very inefficient by its nature.
Funny thing is, the complexity of the explosion motor seemed to be an advantage. This tendency to complexity is typically a man’s thing. And the neat ladies’ preferences? Well, women, you didn’t listen to them anyway.
So: bye, bye to electric cars: since 1910 the explosion motor (petrol, then also diesel) took over.
The engine in a boat
First a word of deep respect for the developers of the petrol and diesel engines. They did a tremendous innovation job the last 120 years. From the overhead camshaft to the 16 valve system, from the injection motor to the turbo technology, it is fantastic. So much added technologies and even the whole motor space became smaller and smaller. Not to forget all the software put into make everything working smoothly and efficiently, and with less and less maintenance. Nowadays, with a lot of added technology and computerising, it is possible to make the explosion engine with a near 50% efficiency. But the thing has become very complex: if there is a defect, even mechanics need computers to tell them what’s wrong and how to repair it.
The electric engine has not changed, or not dramatically. It is still as simple as it ever was. In a boat they have an efficiency of about 85 or 90%.
What is on a skippers mind?
On board of leisure yachts there are still diesel engines and more and more I wonder why. Most sailors I know, express their love for the KISS formula. Keep It Simple, Stupid! But they all have diesel engines. Why? They don’t see it as a problem to take a 2 days course on “maintaining your diesel engine”, on the contrary, they like it. While a maintenance course of an electric engine is not necessary, because there is hardly any maintenance, it is reliable by itself. So why this tendency to complexity? When I ask them, they even try to explain that their Yanmar or Penta or Perkins is not a complex engine.
Did you know that a diesel engine has its efficiency on only a small range of power and rotation? Mostly it is efficient somewhere between the 4 and 6 knots speed, with the sails down and on flat water. The electric engine is efficient in nearly its full range (it is only the propeller that could be limited in its efficiency). For example, when you manoeuvre in a harbour or lock, you must give speed with the throttle shortly strongly open. Such a ‘power blow’ in diesel engines is only possible with a lot of smoke, so very inefficient and bad for nature and for you. A power blow with an electric motor is efficient and no harm is done.
A diesel engine should run at least hours, or better: days, or best: weeks. It wears by using it mostly for starts and stops. So I wonder why so many sailors use a diesel engine to come in and out of a harbour, and why they don’t all go for the electric motor.
The only rational advantage I can think of, is the compact energy storage. Especially we leisure yacht skippers, we like to have a lot of motor hours, just in case you need a big range.
But, the range? Well, is this still true? Over the last century a silent revolution has been going on.
The silent revolution of the electric energy storage
Did you know that from 1900 to 2000 the battery silently made a serious development? The energy storage increased a rough 100% (or more) and the endurability increased. Most batteries don’t need maintenance anymore; just a bit of attention is enough. A normal battery life is 6 or more years, and on board of yachts, with a lighter use, this can go up to 10 years or even more.
The most commonly used battery (the lead acid) can be recharged many times. Before 1940 this battery could be recharged from 50 to 100% a couple of hundred times before they stopped holding energy. But nowadays this is more than a 1000 times in this range and they still hold some 60% of their energy.
The last decade the lithium battery shows that the energy storage becomes also lighter in weight. Light enough to put them in cars, such as the Tesla. Problem is that they cannot be extinguished when on fire. You don’t want such batteries on board.
Since some years, the LFP (or LiFePO4, or Lithium Ferro Phosphate) batteries enter the market. They are self-extinguishing. And, they can be recharged over 2000 times from 50 to 100% with hardly any loss of energy content.
A 85Ah AGM battery weighs 25 kilos and a 100 Ah Lithium Ferro Phosphate (LiFePO4 or LFP) battery weighs 10,5 kilos (would be less than 10 if also 85Ah). This means that the batterypack needed for your motor can weigh 2,5 times lighter! And yes, they cost 2 times more, but they last 2,5 to 3 times longer.
You don’t believe it? Check the pictures below.
So, yacht owners, cruisers and racers, this is a revolution. It means that you can throw out you big diesel motor and you big tank and replace it for a little electric engine and a battery bank. Take off the top of your 100 litres diesel tank and put LiFePO4 batteries in. Your engine room will look very spacious, but you can fill it with some LiFePO4 batteries. I don’t say you get the same amount of energy back, but you can get pretty close. And your ship might become lighter if you want.
The cruisers have the advantages as shown on top of the article. Especially the experience of the silence is overwhelming. The racers have the extra advantage to make their ship lighter by choosing even less batteries to take with them.
The money thing and the real thing
There is always the money thing. The excuse not to invest. Or, you would sell your ship on short notice. But sorry, to be honest, then sellyour ship. And in terms of money, a leisure yacht is a disinvestment anyhow. It should not be the finance, but the leisure.
But if you still want to talk money, my electric installation was about 8000 Euros more expensive than the diesel installation. Then 3 years later, after my first circumnavigation I met a fellow circumnavigator who tanked 8000 Euros just on diesel to go around the world with his own 9 meters boat. Break even so far. And, he had maintenance. He also had some repairs. And, he was close to renewing or revising his complete engine, while mine just had the first trace of use. And he had sludge in his tank. I have clean batteries.
In case you don’t circumnavigate, and you are just a weekend sailor, then be aware that an explosion motor wears by starting and stopping. Or even worse: they wear by waiting. This will cost you extra maintenance, and the risk of extra repairs ruining your leisure time. An electric motor, when properly installed, can wait without wearing.
I would say, circumnavigator or weekend sailor, if I look at all costs, the electric motor wins.
Finally, the real thing. Many people live for their leisure. This is spending your time with your family, your friends. For us sailors this is sailing, and at the end of the day anchoring somewhere on a quiet spot, being aware that you feel in balance with your environment, enjoying it with your beloved ones, for example your children.
About that balance and about children, once a yachtsman told me his grandchild said, in an anchor manoeuvre: “Your motor stinks and it chokes my future.” Pretty blunt, but she has a point here. This same grandfather had put money aside for her, for her future. Her words made him think. He changed to electric propulsion, put some solar panels as a biminitop over the cockpit. Now he says, he sails so much more in balance with his environment and with himself. And his grandchild is proud and tells everybody about her granddad’s ship. Which is generally the same what the neat ladies in the 19th century said about the electric driven coaches.