Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom pioneers electric racing yacht

Niklas Zennstrom's new Ran racing yacht features a revolutionary electric motor.

Story highlights

  • Skype founder launches electric racing yacht
  • Niklas Zennstrom pioneers green energy in Ran VII

(CNN)He founded Skype and is a key figurehead in the tech sector, but now Swedish billionaire Niklas Zennstrom is pioneering electric propulsion systems in racing yachts.

The 52-year-old is a long-time competitive sailor with a succession of boats named Ran, but his latest yacht is pushing the boundaries of technology with a greener, lighter and more efficient electric power unit.
Ran VII, the smallest of his yachts to date, is a stripped down 40-foot racer which will compete on the Fast40+ circuit.
    The revolutionary electric motor -- needed to maneuver out of berths, drive to the race course and for longer passages -- was the brainchild of Carkeek Design Partners, a Majorca-based yacht design business founded by South African Shaun Carkeek.
    "Having gone through the design, build and initial test cycle there is no doubt to me that the future for racing yachts is electric propulsion. It's lighter, less drag, quieter, and most importantly it is environmentally friendly," said Zennstrom.
    Ran VII will race on the Fast40+ circuit.
    The Swedish entrepreneur and his wife Catherine launched the Ran Racing team in 2008, since when it has won a host of the world's most prestigious regattas, including the Rolex Fastnet Race, the RORC Caribbean 600, and the TP52 and Maxi72 World Championships.
    But Zennstrom, who now runs technology investment firm Atomico, believes Ran VII is "the most radical" of his racing yachts.
    "For sure, other companies have done electric propulsion systems but at this stage no one is doing what we've done in terms of optimization of the system into the performance side of the market. That's where this is pretty unique," Carkeek told CNN Sport.
    Carkeek has been at the forefront of yacht design for more than two decades, with work in a host of high-performance areas such as the America's Cup, Volvo Ocean Race and the Grand Prix racing circuit.
    His team had been exploring electric propulsion "for some time" in leisure boats and areas such as the development of sustainable fishing fleets in Pondicherry, India. When discussion with Zennstrom came around to an electric motor for his new yacht, Carkeek said, "We believe we can do it."
    Drone photography at the Volvo Ocean Race
    Volvo Ocean Race AkzoNobel start


      Drone photography at the Volvo Ocean Race


    Drone photography at the Volvo Ocean Race 03:00

    'Pretty unique'

    For Ran VII they first looked at a hybrid system of electric and diesel motor familiar to many car owners, before moving onto ideas incorporating Lithium battery technology used in the Lilium Jet, the world's first all-electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, a project backed by Zennstrom.
    They eventually settled on a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery-powered all-electric system which is lightweight but still delivered the required speed and range required of yacht safety regulations.
    "With emerging battery technology and materials, that sector of the industry is accelerating daily. Weight is coming down and the ability to store power is increasing and it's a win-win situation that makes sense now to do this," added Carkeek.
    "Obviously, Niklas' boat is a fantastic showcase opportunity and a test bed. He is from a technology background and we both share the same kind of philosophy about design and technology. It was a really easy fit for us both."
    Ran VII was the brainchild of South African yacht designer Shaun Carkeek.
    Carkeek's team is working on a number of different-sized electric motors for various racing yachts and is looking to develop a range of lifting or retractable propulsion systems as well as directional thrusters.
    "We have big plans for changing how all sailing boats and even motor boats are powered," added Carkeek, a former South African sailor of the year.
    "Ideas from high-end competitions such as the America's Cup or Formula One always find their way down into production boats or cars. The idea is, how do we now make it scalable to the mass market?"
    Surfing the wave called 'Jaws'
    Surfing the wave called 'Jaws'


      Surfing the wave called 'Jaws'


    Surfing the wave called 'Jaws' 02:26

    'Massive step forward'

    His dream is to "take the whole system off grid" so electric yachts can recharge without the need to plug into mains supplies in marinas.
    Options include solar and wind generation of electricity, plus hydro power where the spinning propeller acts as a turbine to charge the batteries.
    "That's the end goal," he says. "It would be a massive step forward having electric rather than diesel generators."
    One of Carkeek's most ambitious projects is named C300, which at 300 foot is set to be the largest composite sailing yacht structure ever built -- 50ft bigger than the existing benchmark Mirabella.
    The design won the Concept Award at the International Yacht & Aviation Awards 2017.
    No facility exists to build a composite boat of this size -- although plenty of shipyards can build boats of this size in steel or alloy -- but Carkeek is confident his build partners will develop one soon.
    Carkeek's conceptual C300 would be the largest composite yacht structure ever built.
    "A composite structure is very different technology and involves a much more complicated process," he says. "But the end result is you get a boat that has a different look and feel and is much lighter. Then everything on the boat can be lighter and more efficient in terms of costs and the impact on the environment.
    "It's the frontier of design and technology and is a very complicated, large-scale project. As designers with every project we're trying to re-examine the status quo in design and engineering and try to change that for the better.
    "We're always conscious with how we are impacting on the environment, which is obviously so important right now in trying to heal the planet.
    "That's what every business should have as a value and philosophy."