AMSTERDAM – Canals have laced the heart of Amsterdam since Rembrandt painted his masterpieces here. Today, 165 canals span more than 100 kms (62mi) and are crossed by 1,500 bridges. A bewildering variety of boats – glass-topped sightseeing craft, rentals, tenders, saloon boats, gondolas, water taxis – ply the city waters to the point of gridlock. The city is downsizing its fleet and has ordered all canal traffic to be emission-free by 2025.
That decision has stirred hard feelings in Amsterdam’s tour boat business, but not in Olivier Venema, who converts diesel-powered boats into electric craft. His E-Werf yard converts dozens of boats to ‘green’ sailing yearly.
In 2015, Venema quit his white-collar office job for boat building, keen to promote green sailing. He started a yard in Amsterdam to turn old lifeboats into electrically powered recreational craft. Soon, however, zoning changes forced him to find a new site. He found one on Amsterdam’s southern edge and launched the name E-Werf.
“We put everything in cabinets, including waterproof components,” says Venema. “We can convert boats in 10 days or so if everything is well prepared. We can remotely update the electric systems of boats we have converted. We use different suppliers to get the best result for each client.”
Battery makers don’t make it easy for Venema. “Not every manufacturer tells us exactly the cell values up to which they should be charged when the Battery Management System shuts down, et cetera. By making adjustments, we can get more from a system. Twice a week, we go through our boat list, looking for situations that strike us as odd. Such as voltages that don’t match battery percentages.”
By the end of 2021, Venema had electrified 30 boats. This year’s target is 50. E-Werf works on boats of 4.5 to 14m (15 to 46ft). Mostly open cockpit tenders but also motor boats and sailing yachts. Electric inboards tend to come from Green Marine Motors, a Dutch-designed German brand. Clients can choose Torqeedo, Epropulsion or Combi for outboards or pod drives.
Venema: “For each boat, we look for the right engine configuration, shaft and propeller. An electric motor delivers a different torque and runs at a different speed than a diesel. A four-blade propeller turns more quietly, causing less vibration and cavitation.”
The E-Werf site has a boat configurator telling clients what they need and providing an outline of conversion costs. These can be hefty. It shows that installing an electric outboard on a 7m sailing yacht that cruises inland waters can easily cost €21,000. The work consists of removing the old engine, installing the electric motor, the wiring, the software and the batteries, and changing the control panel. It may be necessary to replace the propeller shaft.
Still, Amsterdam is a growth market though Venema fears politicians pushing for green boating may generate a nasty debate about high conversion costs.