Cruising on H2O

January 08, 2019
December 2018

Victorien Erussard, the founder and captain of Energy Observer, is an innovator and explorer. Passionate about the climate and sailing, he has devoted his time to develop the first hydrogen vessel to travel around the world, powered solely by the sun, wind and hydrogen. Let’s embark on his journey. What’s your background - how did you develop an interest in sustainability?

I grew up in Saint-Malo where I was born, close to the sea. I have always been passionate about sailing which led me to become a merchant navy officer as well as an offshore racer. As an athlete, I was initially more into competition and winning for myself and my team. When sailing, you can see the beauty of the ocean and feel the energy provided by nature but at the same time you get to realize the damages caused by humans. It gets to a point when you cannot pretend you don’t know. And once you know, you have to act. How did you come up with the idea of creating the first hydrogen vessel to go around the world? The real click came when I was sailing in the middle of the ocean during the Transat Jacques Vabre, and had a power failure with our generator. Despite having all these natural energy sources: wind, sun and seawater around me, I was still dependent on fossil fuels. That’s when I decided to create a clean smart boat, that would be able to produce its own energy thanks to nature, without harming it and without wasting it. When I started to read and learn about existing technologies, my friend Nicolas Hulot suggested I should have a look at hydrogen. He was right, hydrogen is the key for better autonomy, lighter boats and last but not least: less pollution. “Zero greenhouse emissions” – tell us how it all works and how it is “a model for energy networks of the future?” How can we replicate this technology for other industries?

The problem with renewable energies is their intermittency. This is why we make them work together thanks to energy coupling and optimized storage systems. Onboard we use 3 sources of renewable energy (solar, wind, hydraulic) and 2 storage systems (batteries and hydrogen). During stopovers, when we don’t need energy for propelling the vessel, we use the excess energy produced by the renewables to make hydrogen through sea water electrolysis and store it onboard. This allows us, when sailing and when the conditions aren’t good enough (at night or when the weather is bad), to use hydrogen in order to extend our autonomy via a fuel cell which basically turns hydrogen into electricity, without any greenhouse gas emission. The system being tested and optimized on Energy Observer, is a miniature of the ongoing energy revolution, which is decarbonized, decentralized, and digitalized. It is crucial that the technologies tested on our vessel and the energetic system can be applicable on land. Again, we are a floating laboratory, the technologies tested are not restricted to the maritime sector.

We left Saint-Malo in June 2017 and since then have sailed exactly 10,326 nautical miles on hydrogen and renewables, visited 14 countries and made 33 stopovers, out of 101 planned. The goal is to sail during 6 years to test these technologies under extreme conditions and meet the pioneers finding sustainable solutions for the ecological transition.

What’s the story behind the vessel and the design? Energy Observer is a former race boat, built in 1983 in Canada, under the supervision of Mike Birch. In 1994, Sir Peter Blake won the famous Jules Verne Trophy, a circumnavigation around the world, with this legendary boat which at the time was called Enza New Zealand. We wanted to give her a new life and invest into research and development rather than in building an entirely new boat. Reusing what already existed and which has already proved its reliability is also a key point of sustainability. There is no need for always building and buying new. The proof is that despite the fact it was more complicated for our engineers to adapt a complex energetic architecture to an existing structure, it made us save 25% of the budget. Tell us about the expedition - what is the end goal and what has the experience been like so far? Can you share what a day on the Vessel looks like? We left Saint-Malo in June 2017 and since then have sailed exactly 10,326 nautical miles on hydrogen and renewables, visited 14 countries and made 33 stopovers, out of 101 planned. The goal is to sail during 6 years to test these technologies under extreme conditions and meet the pioneers finding sustainable solutions for the ecological transition. In order to inspire and prove that the ecological transition is possible, we made a documentary series about the Odyssey, directed by Jérôme Delafosse, our expedition leader. In addition to this, an itinerary exhibition village follows us on some of our stopovers with the aim to educate as many people as possible, including public authorities who have the means to take real measures to protect the planet.

Onboard, with our sailors and engineers, we have a production team which includes an embedded journalist. This is why every day is different on-board Energy Observer: sometimes we have days of sailing and working exclusively on the boat (collecting data) and sometimes we have days shooting our documentary series and web series that we make from our encounters with the incredible and inspiring people who are finding sustainable solutions... We never get bored! What’s your vision of where you want the company to go? Since the beginning of this journey, we want to open minds, to sensitize young people as well as stakeholders. On top of the village and our documentary series (8 episodes of 52mns in 2018), we have already gathered a solid cluster of partners. We have had more than 150,000 visitors in total, many ministerial visits, a lot of interviews or speeches at conferences. That’s an important part of our mission. And we want to build on these successful 2 years by heading to Northern Europe, then Asia and America, until 2022. We also want to accomplish the next stages by becoming a real media resource for the energy and ecological transition, through our web series “Solutions” which will be sharing solutions for the planet through the prism of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are really honored to be the first French Ambassador of the SDGs and are doing our best to valorize people contributing to them. Finally, we want to capitalize on our onboard experience to develop hydrogen technologies at sea. Energy Observer is a demonstrator and our ambition is to bring the system to a bigger scale. We are already talking about it and are gathering partners and investors to discuss the next phase. Who is your sustainable hero and why? My friend and mentor Nicolas Hulot. When I was a kid, he opened me to the beauty of nature through his many documentaries. Today, he inspires me because he is truly committed to doing whatever is in his power to change the world, he stands for his convictions and has a great talent for sharing them.

About Sustainable Heroes

Join us on a journey into the hearts and minds of some of today’s greatest heroes, who have dedicated themselves to positively impact tomorrow’s world. We invite you to explore with us what makes these heroes tick, what drives them to overcome arduous trials and immense challenges, known and unknown. In this issue, we pay homage to a leaders in renewable energy, a transportation and mobility expert, a sustainable nonprofit director and an open seas explorer  - all of whom share the goal of creating a sustainable world that is more resilient as well as financially stable. We encourage you on your own quest for ways to innovate, embrace sustainability and do the right thing. Become a heroine or hero to others and help us together solve the problems threatening our very survival. To each of you heroes and heroines, there is a brighter, more sustainable future that we can build together for future generations. We welcome nominations for people you’d like to see featured in future editions. Please send your nominations and other comments to

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