Europe’s new battery/hybrid river cruise boat

What better way to enjoy the quiet odour free experience of an electric boat than while cruising the inland waters of France’s wine district?

The award-winning ‘Natalia’ is a 38M by 5M river barge with windows all around, a comfortable homey interior and an electric/hybrid engine powered and 300kW battery. It also has 6kW of solar panels on its roof to provide emission-free air conditioning.

The boat was commissioned by Backwaters Tours, a UK outfit started in 2007 by Lynn Woods after he acquired a small barge to fulfil his ambition of exploring the inland waterways of France and Belgium – some 10,000 kilometres worth! What he discovered along the way was a wonderful world of small villages and quiet green countrysides that was unaccessible to larger craft.

Plans were first discussed in 2015

He came up with the idea of a day-boat tour, different from conventional hotel boats, in which guests would overnight in onshore country inns and auberges and have a floating observation lounge experience during the day that took them along the backwaters to their next place of interest.

naval architect pans of the canal boat

In 2015 he took his idea to naval architect James Pratt with specifications for the ideal size and his desire to be kind to the waters and environment he got such joy from and have it electrically powered with a low wash Dutch barge type hull.

The Natalia (named after Lynn’s wife) was built by Belgian shipyard Meuse et Sambre with the propulsion system designed and installed by Hybrid Marine of the UK’s Isle of Wight. She was officially launched in the summer of 2018 and the maiden excursions went on to win the Best European Project award from the British Guild of Travel Writers.

Graeme Hawksley of Hybrid Marine designed the propulsion system so that Natalia could cruise for a full day on battery power, then plug in at night to recharge.

The reason for the hybrid design is partly because the onshore recharging infrastructure is not entirely in place along all of the backwater routes, and partly because the Natalia occasionally needs extra power to deal with tidal river flows and particularly strong and unexpected currents under some bridges.

Lead acid batteries are used, not lithium-ion

Surprisingly, the batteries are lead-acid rather than the lithium-ion you might expect. Engineer Hawksley explained to Maritime Journal that in this case the 10 tonnes of batteries simply act as the ballast. “There’s no extra weight,” he said.

“These traditional traction batteries are also very cost effective in price compared to lithium ion – a similar li-ion installation would double the price of the total system.” He added: “These wet lead acid batteries are simple, very robust and reliable in operation – why add another layer of complication and cost when you really don’t need to?”

He also told the journal that Hybrid Marine is scaling up to meet the demand for 12 of these complete battery-diesel hybrids. In particular he notes that systems can be scaled up and down to be appropriate for vessels like the electrified vintage canal boats of Amsterdam we wrote about a few months ago.

For those readers who would like to delve fully into the system specifications Mr. Hawksley has them fully detailed in »» this link on the Backwaters website.

Award-winning wine tours and more

people are seated on comfortable seats chatting and looking out the windows of the observation lounge boat

For those readers more interested in the leisurely aspects of silently exploring the European countryside, the Natalia excursions have been a huge hit.

 As outlined on the site

Backwaters cruising is complemented by visits to the great châteaux, gardens, vineyards and historic towns and villages. During our first season passengers loved our new way of navigating the more intimate waterways ­ it’s an ideal way to explore the hidden France at your leisure.

Many of the tours for this 2019 season are themed around subjects like classical music, jazz, ornithology, antiques, wines, regional history even beer savouring cruise.

The Natalia’s June 8th Rivers of Wine tour is sold out (alas!) but you can find out more about the Natalia and upcoming cruises on the ‘Itineraries’ section their site.

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a luxury 64' yacht seen from above with solar panels on its roof

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