Sailing Uma's YouTube stars on sailing the world aboard a DIY regen retrofit

Dan Deckert and Kika Mevs from Sailing Uma discuss the success of their 'DIY Frankenstein' project

author icon By Peter Shadbolt | 24 April 2021

By any blue water standards, it’s a pretty courageous decision: rip out your old diesel engine and replace it with an electric motor you bought off eBay for US$100. And not just any electric motor either: a second-hand motor pulled out of the guts of a forklift truck.

In the case of YouTube stars Dan and Kika from Sailing Uma – who bought their 1972 Pearson 36 a little over six years ago for just US$3,000 – the success of what they called their “DIY Frankenstein” engine was largely down to their own ingenuity, thumbing through manuals and getting advice from their online community.

Committed wind-power proponents, they spoke to Asia Pacific Boating about how their jury-rigged unit took them around the world and how a little bit of ignorance goes a long way.

Asia-Pacific Boating: Your DIY motor from a forklift truck was a fantastically inventive fix and it seemed to last a long time. I’m just wondering why you thought to upgrade?

Dan: Our original forklift motor wasn’t meant at all for what we wanted to do with it. We had to modify it a lot – put bearings in it and clean it, marinize it, paint it and everything else. We didn’t have a budget for anything more than that and we didn’t know any better. We thought let’s start cheap and figure it out as we go along and then see what we actually need and then upgrade later. It worked but it was very limited on range. It would overheat because it was designed for much less of a load than we were putting on it, but that worked okay because we didn’t have big batteries at the beginning.

Dan Deckert and Kika Mevs

Kika: Our knowledge was zero and our budget was also zero. Our aim was to buy something cheap from eBay for a hundred bucks and make it work. If all you want to do is get the boat off the dock and just sail, our first electric motor was perfect for that. But for the experience we wanted, we wanted to make regen work because we’re living on that boat. So to be able to get that power into a battery was kind of the end goal. So when we were able to upgrade six years later we definitely jumped at the opportunity.

Our knowledge was zero and our budget was also zero. Our aim was to buy something cheap from eBay for a hundred bucks and make it work – Kika Mevs

APB: Did you know that regen was even a thing when you fitted your forklift motor?

Dan: One of the reasons why we even wanted an electric motor in the first place is because we knew that regeneration was a thing with electric cars – even with golf carts.

When you brake going downhill, it puts a little bit of power back into the batteries. Well, sailing is like going downhill forever and if we could get regen on a sailboat then that seemed like the golden ticket. If we could go sailing, generate all our own power from an onboard system – enough for 20-30 minutes when we need to anchor or go into a marina – then that would be the best thing ever. We figured we’d start from zero and try to work our way up.

APB: How did you hear about the Oceanvolt regen unit?

Dan: A friend told us he was ripping out two units from his catamaran and said do you want one? It’s actually relatively old – maybe five or six years – which is not old for electric motors but in terms of the technology curve, that’s pretty old. He said for the price of shipping, we could have it. He said I like what you guys are doing, I know you want to upgrade and we were, like, sure let’s do it.

It ended up costing us a bit of money to get the missing components and install it but it’s solved our range issue and it doesn’t overheat because it’s the proper size. It’s actually oversized for what we need. And it’s a bit more efficient too. It’s about 20 to 25% more efficient than our old setup, which is nice, but it’s not a game changer. It does give us some regen, but since it still has the folding prop, it’s not as good as Oceanvolt’s, even newer, modest servo prop, which, which would give us about three times more than what we’re getting now.

Sailing Uma is a 1972 Pearson 36, bought for US$3,000

APB: What would you say to those sailors who say you need a strong diesel engine to get yourself out of trouble?

Kika: For the first two years of sailing in the Caribbean, we never used our motor for more than 15 minutes because that’s all the battery power we had and we didn’t even have a shore charger, so we couldn’t charge up the batteries even if we wanted to. We had to live on solar – that’s all we had. And then we upgraded our batteries and installed a battery charger that we could plug in and then we could theoretically motor for about an hour. We still never needed to. Our boats sails well, and we’ve set it up to be very, very easy to sail. In the end, it’s actually easier to sail than it is to motor.

Dan: Because of our YouTube channel, a lot of what we’ve done to the boat is very public and over six years we’ve had ALL the comments. For the people who say they need a motor, they kind of boil down into three categories. The first are those that have been taught somewhere along the line that dropping the sails and motoring into the weather is a good heavy weather sailing technique. I have no idea why that’s a good idea on any boat, but people ask what do you do in storms? And we answer, well … we sail. If there’s wind, you can sail right?

 

The second category are those that say what if you have to beat off the lee shore because the wind shifted and you’re dragging and you have to motor for hours to save your boat? We still say, if there’s wind, you can sail. The third category are the people who, if they’re not sailing at more than three knots turn the motor on. That’s okay of if you’re in the Bahamas, there’s no wind and you’ve got to get back to be at work on Monday. We get that. There are people who ask us if we’re going to get a generator to help out the batteries in light wind but we’d rather spend the money on a code zero or a spinnaker than a generator because there’s almost never zero wind. It’s so rare.

Uma carries both light and heavy sails

APB: Are you seeing this as a trend? Are more and more people in the cruising community doing it your way or are you the only ones you’ve met?

Dan: I think we know of maybe half a dozen all-electric boats out there and we know some people that don’t have motors at all. And then there’s a much larger percentage of people that are getting new boats that are hybrid – these are people that understand that battery technology is going to shift soon and they understand that a generator is just one more way to make electricity because you have wind turbines and solar and now good regen while you’re sailing. As the technology improves, a generator is only going to be a fourth way to make electricity. In five years or more, I don’t think even hybrid is going to be as, as big of a thing as it is now.

Kika: I think the world is slowly starting to shift in the direction of becoming sailors again.

Read more: How close are we to self-charging propulsion?