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The Story Of Greenhorn I

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From A Dream To A Plan

I had never been what I would describe as a boater, but boats had always held a fascination for me. Over the years I've collected many good memories that were somehow boat related. As a young boy, some of my first memories were of trips to St Lawrence Seaway locks near our home to watch the ships go through. I continued to be drawn to the water and boats, but regular types of boating didn't appeal to me. I've never been a big fisherman. Much as I enjoy sailing, I don't always like being so dependent on the available winds. And I could just never accept the fuel consumption of fast powerboats.

The year I turned 40 I stumbled across PMM for the first time, while on vacation. Here was a magazine dedicated to a different type of boating. The more I read the more I realized this was precisely the type of boating that did appeal to me. PMM had only been publishing for a few months at that time, but before my vacation was over I had read that issue cover to cover, ordered the few back issues available, and subscribed.

A couple of years went by and somehow during that time an old dream was rekindled and redefined. My dream was not unusual: It was the standard "trade house for big boat and wander the world chasing pleasant weather and interesting places dream. My wife pointed out something that I should have realized but somehow hadn't stopped to think about. If I really wanted to end up traveling on a big boat, it was going to require some preparation and planning. She had highlighted for me that to make the jump from the dream to reality I would need a plan to get me there. She also suggested that if I was ready to spend some time on the water, perhaps I should talk to my Dad about finishing what has always been known in my family as "the boat."

"The Boat"

In 1967 my family moved to Ottawa, Canada, at the north end of the Rideau Canal. My father saw the potential of the canal system as a wonderful opportunity for recreational boating. He came across plans in a magazine for a 25–foot David Beach designed cabin cruiser. Now he didn't have the space to build a boat that size, but being an engineer, he didn't have much trouble adapting the plans to suit his available garage space.

In 1968 he started building an 18–foot plywood and fiberglass boat with lines that might be best described as being tug–like. He planned her for an outboard motor with sleeping accommodations and a head. She would be ideal for day, weekend, or even week long trips on the 125–mile–long Rideau Canal system. But the boat wasn't always his first priority and the demands of family and career often delayed construction. When my wife suggested I finish "the boat" in 2001, the hull had been completed and fiberglassed. There were no cabins yet. There hadn't been much progress for some time. My father's health had not been ideal and this limited his ability to work on the boat. Taking over the project seemed like a good idea. Without having to commit too much money, I could finish the boat and get out on the water. Although she was only 18 feet long, like the bigger boats of my dreams, my wife and I could travel and live on her, if only for a few days at a time. She could have 110 and 12 volt power systems, VHF radio and GPS, water systems including a head, and even a galley of sorts. She might well be an ideal boat to get me on the water more frequently. Our home is located within a few hours drive of not only the Rideau Canal system, but also the Trent–Severn Waterway and the New York State canal system. With most of the best canal cruising opportunities in North America within a few hours of home, an 18–foot boat that would trailer easy would be ideal.

Although it seemed like a great opportunity for me, I was unsure of what my father would think. After all it had been his dream for a very long time. At a family get together I broached the subject. I was relieved and pleased to find he was thrilled about the possibility of seeing the boat completed and launched.

Work Begins

I started working on the boat in the spring of 2001. Until the following fall I made the 5–1/2–hour drive to my parent's home whenever my schedule would allow it. I had helped my Dad apply the fiberglass to the hull in the early 70s but the surface wasn't all that smooth, and although the resin had been colored blue, it wasn't all that uniform either so I decided to fair and paint the hull dark green. Although I had used fiberglass and resins on occasion in the past I didn't have a lot of experience, but with some research and good advice I started. It was hard and dirty work but I was quite pleased with the results and I learned a lot along the way.

With the hull exterior finished I started working on the cabins and interior framework. Because the plans had been scaled down they were helpful for determining a style, but all of the detail of the cabin design was up to me. Unlike the fiberglass though, my background as both a hobby woodworker and an engineer prepared me well for designing and building cabins. Given that I was building a trailer boat that would not often be in the water for more than a week or two at a time, I felt I could use materials that were light, easily worked, and familiar to me. The construction is primarily 1–by–2 and 1–by–3 inch pine and one–quarter–inch and three–eights–inch marine plywood.

I completed both cabins without any glue for the first time, partly because I was designing a lot of the details as I went and occasionally had to backtrack and change things. But besides that, the garage door opening wasn't tall enough to move the boat with the forward cabin in place. Before the cabins could be permanently added I needed a larger workspace.

Fortunately, about this time, a friend purchased a place in the country close to my home. It had a large shed he hoped to rent out to people looking for storage. So for the first time in the over 30 years, "the boat" left my parent's property in Ottawa and made the trip to Southern Ontario and her new home.

With a 10–foot ceiling and a full–height door, construction moved forward. Having completely built the cabins once, they came together quickly the second time with plenty of marine glue and boxes of woodscrews. I fiberglassed the exterior of the cabins and the deck surfaces. Besides adding a measure of water and abrasion resistance I was surprised by the amount of stiffening a single layer of fiberglass added to the one–quarter–inch cabin roofs.

Launching "The Boat"

By the summer of 2004 things were coming along well. We chose a launch date in September, in part to give me an extra push to complete a few things that had been taking longer than I thought they should. By now "the boat" had a name. I held a contest with my nieces and nephews and the winning name was Greenhorn. Besides reflecting the dark green color of the hull, it also reflected my inexperience on the water, and the purpose of the boat as a floating classroom to help me learn more about boating. She was registered Greenhorn I since a wooden fishing boat on the east coast already had the name Greenhorn.

Besides being my parent's home, Ottawa is also Greenhorn I's home port, and she was designed and built for the Rideau Canal system. So, although a six–hour drive away, I felt the only option for a launch site was Ottawa, at Dows Lake on the Rideau Canal. In the early afternoon on a perfect fall day in late September 2004 champagne was sprayed all over the bow, the bagpiper played the Skye Boat song, and 36 years after her keel had been laid, Greenhorn I slipped into Dows Lake witnessed by over 100 friends and family. The first cruise, the "builder's cruise," took three generations of boatbuilders, my father along with a granddaughter who had also helped with the construction, and me, for a short trip around Dows Lake.

Being essentially a scale model of an unusual design we had no idea what to expect. Our best hopes were exceeded as we found she handled exceptionally well, was very stable, and could carry a good load. The only adjustment was that although she was launched with 300 lb. of lead in her bilges she was a little light and high in the water with only one person on board. On launch day however, this was not a problem as we carried many passengers all afternoon with as many as eight adults comfortably on board during one trip. It was without question a momentous occasion and a wonderful day for all of us involved in the project over the years. Soon after the launch, with cold weather approaching, Greenhorn I was moved back into her shed. As fall turned into winter I got thinking about the launch experience. I was a little concerned about the motor. It was a 1978 Chrysler two–stroke outboard intended for sailboats. The motor had been purchased brand new for the project and have never been run until a few weeks before the launch. Amazingly it ran very well! At 10hp it provided more than enough power and good control, but I was concerned about reliability, and with a 4–knot cruising speed, the unpleasant prospect of two–stroke exhaust drifting through the cabins on a following breeze seemed likely.

About the same time I was starting to consider a few more things that needed to be added for overnight cruising. Paramount among these was the ability to make morning coffee. It seemed to me that mixing flammable liquids or gases, and a boat, and me in the pre–caffeinated state was a recipe for disaster. I started looking at coffee–making alternatives that did not involve open flames. This was when several requirements merged and, like a lightbulb turning on, I knew what I had to do. The boat didn't need much more power to reach displacement speed: Anything above one–half throttle from the outboard only generated more noise and a great rolling bow wave. It needed more ballast. The 300 lb. of lead already in the bilges had proven to be only half the minimum required. And as an electrical engineer I knew you needed a substantial amount of electricity to boil water for coffee in a reasonable time.

Converting To Electrical Power

With those requirements in mind I made the decision to experiment with converting Greenhorn I completely to electrical power. Not only would the required batteries provide all the ballast I needed, but I figured I could push the boat at a reasonable speed without the old outboard and make coffee anytime quickly and safely. If I could make this work, there would be the added bonus that I could have the comforts of my powerboat and still enjoy one of my favorite things about sailing, which is cruising with the loudest sound being the noise of water splashing against the hull.

Over the next few months I researched and located gear for the electric boat conversion project. Come spring I was able to start building, experimenting, and testing things. The conversion to electric power has been very experimental, and to date, even more successful and rewarding that I had hoped.

There aren't actually too many people who really understand batteries, and even among that small group there seems to be conflicting opinions. This was one of the more difficult areas for me to make what I felt were good decisions when designing this system. I did finally settle on having all my power coming from six 12–volt 200Ah AGM marine batteries, cabled up as a single 24–volt bank. I went with AGM batteries because I have to keep them in the cabin so their sealed nature (no production of explosive gases) was very important to me.

Additionally, they are particularly good at delivering or receiving a lot of current without suffering serious ill effects, and they don't self–discharge nearly as fast as traditional lead–acid batteries. This is helpful as unfortunately Greenhorn I spends more time sitting around on the hard than I would like. Over a quarter of the boat's weight is from her batteries, but the 800 lb. just happens to pretty much meet the ballast requirements. If I was starting this project again from scratch, I might use eight AGM batteries with about the same overall capacity and wire them up for 48 volts as that would give me more motor options to choose from and would also cut the amount of current required to deliver the same power in half.

I have four Iota 12–volt/30–amp battery chargers that I use in pairs (two or four) depending on whether I have 15 or 30–amp shorepower available. This lets me bring flat batteries up to a full charge overnight if I have 30–amp shorepower, but still lets me charge the batteries if all that is available is 15 amps. While 30–amp shorepower is often available, being able to use 15–amp increases my charging opportunities. When I am using a single pair I can also turn on "smart" charging, which controls the charging near the end of the cycle to both limit the cycle time and avoid damaging the batteries from overcharging. However, if I were to do this over, I'd use two 24–volt chargers (or 48 if that was the bank voltage) rather than four 12–volt models. The primary reason for this is just space constraints on board.

Engine Configuration

I started this project with Minn Kota trolling motors. Although they are not designed for this type of use they are relatively cheap and easily modified, and parts and service accessibility is excellent. I was offered three 24–volt 50–lb. thrust units at a good price early on in the design process and I had calculated 150 lb. of thrust was just about what I should be looking for. I started with two of the motors mounted on Greenhorn I's original transom. This allowed me to get a good idea of how the whole thing would work before I got too deeply into modifications of the hull. Two motors worked OK in all but the worst conditions. I was able to maintain headway into 25–knot winds and 3–4 foot seas once, but it wasn't at all comfortable and it was very slow going.

With the concept proven I modified the hull to mount all three motors through the hull and fill in the motor well, completing the much more attractive rounded stern, which is how Greenhorn I was originally designed. With three motors installed, the poor weather conditions mentioned above are now quite manageable. By using trolling motors I don't need rudders, and, as the motor pods rotate over 180 degrees, I can turn the boat around in her own length. Motor control is provided by three small knobs at the helm, each with an accompanying rocker switch to select forward, neutral, or reverse. It takes a while to get used to maneuvering without any engine noise to guide you. I never realized how important that feedback was.

One unexpected benefit from the three–motor configuration was that not only did my top speed increase as might be expected, but at the same cruising speed, three motors use 25 percent less power than only two. Under normal conditions, I use about 750 watts (one–half of what a regular hair dryer uses) at cruising speed. Right now I'm considering upgrading to some newly available "engine mount" Minn Kota 24–volt motors and trying out a four–motor configuration.

Note that trolling motors are not designed to run at full throttle for hours on end so my design does not push the motors that hard. My current motors are rated for a total maximum current draw of 84–amps but I normally run at only 35–50 percent of this load. I am able to cruise at 3.5 knots with 11 hours of running time and for about 45 miles before needing to charge the batteries.

All this was tested out during the week leading up to the first anniversary of her launch when I traveled half the length of the Rideau Canal system getting familiar with handling the boat, locking through locks, and many of the ins and outs of canal travel. For the trip I had running water, a head, two iceboxes, two berths, a VHF radio, and of course, a 24VDC kettle that would boil three cups of water in four minutes. My father was able to join me for part of the trip. Together in the boat that he started and I finished, cruising the very waterway the boat was designed for, was without question the highlight of a great trip and yet another day to remember.

Canal Cruising

Greenhorn I was designed for canal cruising. So far, I have only cruised on the Rideau Canal, a beautiful 125–mile long canal that runs between Ottawa and Kingston. I can complete the entire length in a week if I want to. The small size is an advantage as I can easily handle the locks single–handed and during busier seasons I don't need a very long strip of dock to tie up for the night. My cruises to date have generally been a week or so long, although this summer I hope to complete a 450–mile trip from Ottawa to Georgian Bay via the Rideau Canal and Trent–Servern Waterway. Because there are good facilities for showering, provisioning, and going ashore all along the way, I feel I could cruise comfortably for weeks.

Traveling in a boat this size requires being very organized, and it's important to put things away, where they belong, as soon as they are not required. As long as you keep this up, 18 feet works very well. Greenhorn I has dedicated storage spaces for charts and guides, safety gear, and tools, and the electronics were built in. Cold beverages go in the small icebox, and cold food goes in the large icebox. Everything else—clothes, personal stuff, provisions, dishes, coffee, and scotch—is stored in six or seven plastic bins that can be stored and stacked in a number of different configurations throughout the boat. Besides keeping things dry, this allows me to adjust which bins are most easily accessible on a daily basis. Between getting dressed, washing, breakfast, and last minute travel planning I normally use all the bins each morning, so before casting off I organize and stow them based on my travel plans for the day, expected weather, and even food and galley requirements. I can always make changes while under way but most of the time things unfold roughly as planned, meaning everything I need is easily accessible and I don't end up with a lot of clutter around. It doesn't take too much extra "stuff" lying around to impede the smooth functioning of this little ship.

Starting Small

I'm still years away from any chance of living out "the dream" in its full glory, but the Greenhorn I project has been a fun and practical way for my dream to evolve into a plan to start doing something about it. It's given me a chance to deal with many of the same issues I would have to deal with on a larger boat, but on a manageable scale. It's got me out on the water, cruising in my own boat, and it's given me many opportunities to talk to other boaters. And when it comes time to move up to a larger trawler, I'm unlikely to have the complaint some people seem to have that "8 knots is too slow."

And the very best thing about this whole project is that it has allowed me to both help my father complete his dream, while at the same time, starting to turn my own dream into reality.

About The Author

John Hayes is an electrical engineer who grew up in Ottawa at the top end of the Rideau Canal system. While he calls Canada home nowadays, he has been lucky enough to travel extensively and has lived in a number of countries around the world. John has always had an interest in boats and using energy more effectively and efficiently, so the Greenhorn I project was a perfect combination of his interests.