Hybrid fishing boat quietly makes waves in Sitka Sound

Fabian Grutter and his son Vinden at the helm of the F/V Sunbeam in January. Grutter is putting the finishing touches on the boat’s diesel-electric hybrid propulsion system. (Ari Snider/KCAW)

There are few sights along Alaska’s coastline more familiar than a fishing boat plowing over the waves and out to sea, diesel engine rumbling while a trail of bluish smoke hangs in the air. But this year, keen observers will notice an odd duck on the waters around Sitka — the town’s first hybrid electric fishing boat, working the nets in near silence.

On a recent afternoon, Fabian Grutter eases his boat, the Sunbeam, out of its slip in Crescent Harbor. If you listen closely, you’ll notice something is missing: No chugging, roaring diesel engine. In its place, the whir of the electric motor. It’s remarkably quiet, at least until Grutter puts it into gear a little too quickly and slips a belt.

“You have to be careful not to throttle up too quickly, there’s just so much power instantly,” Grutter said.

This is only the third time Grutter has taken the Sunbeam out under electric power, and there’s still a lot to get used to. Joining us today is Grutter’s two-year-old son, Vinden. Decked out in a red life jacket, he’s already earned his tiny sea legs, having accompanied his dad on many fishing trips. And, like a good first mate, he wants to take a look under the cabin floor at the new engine setup.

“Do you wanna look down there too, Vinden?” Grutter asked. Vinden nodded. “OK, but Dad’s gotta go down too cause that’s a long way down there. Yeah it’s exciting, isn’t it?”

Grutter has been fishing his whole life, and he’s had the Sunbeam for 20 years. He’s also a self-described electric vehicle enthusiast, and five years ago he started the project of hybridizing his fishing boat. He thought an electric motor would work particularly well with gillnetting, which involves a lot of idling, when a diesel engine is least efficient.

“Basically hanging around the net for 18 hour days, 15 hour days,” he said. “You don’t really push anything hard so the electric motor’s ideal for that.”

Grutter makes it all sound pretty casual, but this is not your average science fair project. First of all, it cost him over $30,000 in batteries, motors, wiring, and a computer system to make the whole operation spin. And that’s not figuring in the countless hours spent bringing his dream to fruition.

“I’m just constantly on Google and the internet and asking questions and stuff, and then calling these different people and stuff,” Grutter said. “And I kinda purposely did it, bought stuff from different people so I could get different information from different people. Different opinions.”

Five years later, he’s got Sitka’s first hybrid electric fishing vessel, albeit with a few kinks left to work out. He’ll be able to charge the 70 kilowatt battery bank off the diesel engine, or by plugging in to shore power at the dock. Grutter will still use the old engine for hustling to and from the fishing grounds, but once he sets the net, there’s enough juice to fish all day under electric power.

He estimates that’ll translate to a 30 to 40 percent reduction in fuel use and engine hours, and a near total reduction in noise while he’s fishing.

Fabian Grutter is not the only one experimenting with hybrid technology. The Washington State Ferry service is converting its three largest ferries to diesel electric drive, part of a statewide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Matt von Ruden, director of vessel engineering and maintenance for the Washington State Ferries, says ferries are a natural fit to work as plug-in hybrids, because they generally travel short, repetitive routes at predictable speeds.

“You know if you’re plugging in you want a repeatable route where your operational profile is very steady,” he said. “Your distance has to be fairly limited, ten miles or so is probably about where you want to be at his point.”

Ten miles wouldn’t get you very far along most Alaska Marine Highway routes, but it’s more than enough for the quick hop across Puget Sound from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, for example. That means even though the ferries will still have diesel engines, they’ll be able to operate some routes on battery power alone, using their time at the dock to recharge.

Von Ruden says there are over one hundred battery-operated ferries worldwide, and that number is increasing rapidly as more countries embrace the technology.

“Primarily it’s been in Scandinavia up to now, and now it’s expanding more into Europe and North America,” von Ruden said. “Just becoming more and more common for ferry vessels in particular.”

In the fishing industry, however, Grutter’s hybrid gillnetter is still an outlier. On a recent afternoon he took it out for its third sea trial under fully electric power.

Grutter doesn’t plan to use the electric motor for cruising, but today he flexes it anyway, to see how fast it’ll go.

“That is probably, oh, 30 kilowatts, 25 to 30 kilowatts,” Grutter said as we accelerated through the harbor chop. “At that speed I get about a little over two hours from the battery bank. Six knots right now, 6.2.”

Soon, though, it’s time to head back to the dock. Grutter doesn’t want to push the electric motor too hard just yet. Also, the first mate is getting sleepy — we’ve cruised right through Vinden’s naptime.

The next item on Grutter’s agenda is installing a second electric motor to power the boat’s hydraulic fishing gear. He plans to have the Sunbeam’s hybrid drive ready by the start of the fishing season in March.

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