To Get the World Excited About Electric Boats, E1 Offers a “Punch in the Face”
The team behind the RaceBird talks about their eye-catching vessel, and their hopes for the global racing series it will star in
When you’re a young yacht designer and get an unexpected request to come up with “the most advanced boat ever built,” you rightly dive right in.
“My ambition became to design something that was just really, really cool,” enthuses Sophi Horne, founder of SeaBird Technologies, who’s based in Oslo, Norway. “I just kept thinking, sleek and sexy, sleek and sexy. On the performance level we’ve delivered well, but if I felt I’d have to ask any photographer not to shoot it from a particular angle then I think I would have failed.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that the RaceBird, as the boat is called, had come out of DARPA or a James Bond movie. At 23 feet long, with the single seater cockpit set way back from the nose, the electric engine delivering a top speed of 58 mph and, most innovatively, the hull mounted on truncated foils, lifting it out of the water, giving it tight turn capability without flipping, the RaceBird looks like a fighter jet for the fathoms. And that’s appropriate, seeing as 12 RaceBird teams will likely be on the grid in Miami next year.
That’s because the RaceBird is the centerpiece of a much bigger project: the E1 Series, the first all-electric boat race, developed by Alejandro Agag — founder of the electric motorsports series Formula E and Extreme E — and Rodi Basso, whose career in engineering has taken him from NASA to Ferrari, Red Bull to Marelli and McLaren. It was Agag who’d invested in Horne’s startup, SeaBird, which planned to develop a six-berth, electric-powered leisure boat, intended to make boating more accessible to more people. It was Basso who saw the potential to push that design to its limit — ably assisted by Victory Marine, one of Italy’s leading nautical design houses and the company that built the RaceBird — in order to create the right craft for a new entertainment brand.
“I think what was needed was a bit of a punch in the face, and the design and engineering of the RaceBird brings that,” says Basso, who’s based in London. “There’s often an aversion to [the risk of] bringing in something completely new or too different, but at the same time this was an incredible way to make a point: that we need to turn the page on the way we enjoy the water.”
Certainly, the E1 Series represents a major spectacle: it’s currently in negotiations with 70 cities around the world to host races, with Venice and Monaco signed up, Rotterdam, Jeddah and Miami on the cards, and with Stockholm and Budapest likely too for the first season. A third team is about to confirm, with another 10 discussing final details. Basso wants each race to have between eight and 12 teams, competing on tight, dynamic courses close to shore — not powerboating’s usual straight-line races in the distance — in fastest lap elimination heats.
There’s the expected glamor, too. Although E1 Series’ first sponsors are the tech companies that have supplied various parts or materials that went into the RaceBird, inevitably the luxury world of watches and fashion is keen to get its names on the side too. Basso says E1, like Formula 1, will have plenty of publicity-generating international celebrity involvement as well. But for him, the medium contains a message. Much as the automotive world is making the shift to electrification, this boat racing series is all to highlight the need for the marine world to do the same, from small boats like the RaceBird through to, eventually, the cargo ships that, often overlooked, contribute at least 2.5% of global CO2 emissions.
“There’s a problematic gap, because the marine industry is at least 20 years behind the development of electric power technologies,” Basso explains. “We’re hoping that by building an exciting sport we can contribute to the electrification of this industry, and that’s really our mission, to be a showcase of an idea.”
“I’m an engineer and see it all simply as a matter of efficiencies. It’s not that I’m a fan of any specific technology,” he adds. “But what frustrates me is that, even faced with the evidence, there are still strong interests blocking electrification across all forms of mobility. We think that sport [given its profile] is the best way of overcoming that block. That’s why technology can’t be the protagonist of the narrative, but entertainment.”
The entertainment factor is also a way of getting powerful coastal city authorities on board too, even if there has had to be some back-and-forth to find a balance between allowing crowds to get close to the action and the demands of major ports busy with commercial traffic. But powerboating currently has nothing like the pulling power of Formula 1, so being able to see the action is crucial, Basso argues.
Certainly Agag and Basso have been mindful of crafting a tempting package for them. As Basso explains, these cities “have an increasing pressure from public opinion to do something about water quality and life around the port, and, given that [these cities] are centers for the marine industry, they need more and more tangible examples to show that they are doing something about it. And we’re very much aligned with that agenda.”
The E1 Series is currently charging a venue fee to each city, but then the city is free to commercialize the event as it sees fit, from tickets to adjacent events and so on. But the event will offer more than just a way to generate cash for the city coffers. It will also cover the cost of marine biologists to stay and work locally on water-quality issues. It plans to host an exhibition at each venue in which local companies can showcase their own clean tech projects to deep-pocketed corporations. And, most lastingly, in hosting E1 — the events will be run from a repurposed cargo ship turned floating HQ, as with Extreme E — each venue gets to keep the waterside charging infrastructure that’s installed.
“There are so many lessons from the automotive world that can be applied to the marine world, most notably the lack of charging infrastructure,” says Basso. There are lessons in how not to do things, too. E1 expects, for example, that for future seasons teams will bring electric race boats of their own proprietary design, in theory extending the possibilities for their technologies to trickle down to the wider marine market.
But Basso notes how the impact that Formula 1 has had in this way has been somewhat oversold. He cites its development of ERS, or energy recovery systems — hybrid engines by a more fancy name — that, as clever as they are, cannot be scaled up for mass-production. “It becomes a self-referential exercise in which engineers have fun, for sure, but what’s the wider impact?” he wonders.
That hasn’t stopped the E1 Series from developing the RaceBird further already. Such was the speed of the project from conception to imminent launch.
“It was all a matter of ‘here’s the idea, this is the timeline, let’s have this ready in a year!’” Horne laughs. With that framework, the craft’s first generation inevitably required compromises. The second generation, now built and currently undergoing final testing, will have a bespoke cockpit, integral rather than outboard motor and what Horne promises to be even sleeker lines. It will, as Basso might describe it, be another punch in the face.
“RaceBird represents excitement, our spirit as a startup and E1 Series as a new sport,” he says. “I just love to see people’s reaction when they see the boat for the first time.”
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