Historic Zebu world’s 1st tall ship with electric motor

The world’s 1st tall ship with electric motor is ‘Zebu ‘, a wooden brigantine of Baltic Trader design that was built 82 years ago in Sweden, sailed around the world from 1984-88 as part of the  Operation Raleigh international student training expedition and is now berthed in Royal Albert Dock, Liverpool.

Of course, there are lots of electric motors for use with every day sailboats (see the Plugboats Guide to Saildrives and Pods), but this is the first for a classic brigantine tall ship.

A brigantine (according to Wikipedia) is a ‘two-masted sailing vessel with a fully square rigged foremast and at least two sails on the main mast’ with origins that go back as far as the 13th century. Zebu – originally named Ziba –  is part of the UK’s National Historic Ships registry…and has had quite the history herself!

1938 photo of crew who built the tall ship with electric motorShe was built in 1938 at the A B Holms shipyard in Råå, Helsingborg, Sweden to transport cargo such as timber, paper, and iron ore around the Baltic Sea. When the Second World War broke out there is some speculation that she was  also used to smuggle refugees and arms in support of the Polish Home Army.

After the war her rigging was removed, a diesel motor was installed and she continued to ply the waters of the Baltic until the late 1970s.

The National Historic Ships site says

During the early 1970s Zebu was used recreationally and had been converted back to a Ketch rig and became UK registered. She came under the ownership of Mr Nick Broughton in 1983 who had her refitted as a 1870 replica Brigantine at Lowestoft in preparation for her use during Operation Raleigh.”

Sailed around the world to 41 countries

Operation Raleigh was a four-year round-the-world expedition to commemorate Sir Walter Raleigh’s first expedition to America in 1584. It was launched by HRH Prince Charles in October 1984 when Zebu set off from the St. Katharine Dock on the Thames in London.

Young crew of Operation RaleighOver the next 4 years Zebu visited 41 countries and travelled 69,000 miles • 110,000 kms while the overall project engaged 4,000 young people aged 17-24 from dozens of nations in a variety of challenging expeditions mixing adventure, science and rural community aid projects.

On her return to England Zebu found a home with Liverpool’s Mersey Heritage Trust at the Royal Albert Dock. She operated for 27 years as a sailing training vessel, won awards as an exemplary UK learning project and was the star attraction for things like the Trust’s annual Pirate Festival, complete with cannons booming across the water.

In 2015 Zebu started taking on water in the middle of a September night and was found at the bottom of the dock area the next morning. It took a delicate and complicated operation to raise her, and Susan Hanley-Place of the Trust said “dozens of shocked but determined Zebu volunteers will be on hand to do their best to ensure this magnificent ship sails again.”

Alas, the task proved bigger than expected and her future was in doubt until Captain Gerrith Borrett, and his wife Suzi purchased Zebu and founded Tall Ship ZEBU Community Interest Company in 2018, a not-for-profit organization with the goal of ‘restoring Zebu to her former glory and eventually getting her sailing again as a fine working example of maritime heritage and as an educational outreach platform‘. 

Repairs and restoration started immediately, thanks in large part to funds from the UK’s National Heritage Lottery Fund and Zebu was pronounced fit to take on passengers again in the summer of 2018, hosting 6,000 visitors over 3 days in that summer’s Liverpool Tall Ships Festival.

200 kW for tall ship with electric motor

Of course, when Zebu was built she ran totally on wind power, and while it is not practical to have a sailing-only tall ship in 2020, it has always been Captain Borrett’s goal to make sure she burns no fossil fuels. Hence the be the first tall ship with electric motor.

Now, in addition to her 395 m2 • 4,200 sq.ft  of sails, the The 31 metre • 101 ft tallship is proudly outfitted with a 200Kw DC Axial Flux Motor and Lithium-ion 96 AmpHour battery. The maximum torque is 790 Newton metres at 3250 RPM, but the expectation is it that she will normally be running at 100kW continuous power and 400 N-m.

“This has been 2 ½ years of constant research and development, stubborn self-belief and working through a wall of doubters,” said Captain Borrett, “but I can say that we continue our journey to achieve our aim of completely restoring and keeping this beautiful iconic ship afloat and the electric motor is a huge leap on the way to being 100% powered by renewable clean energy.”

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