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Muskoka Discovery Centre

Wanda III: Steam to Green

Electric power gives new life to a classic launch
The idea sounds simple enough: take a classic, steam-powered launch built in 1915 and give her an unlimited, sustainable future with a modern, zero-emissions power plant and up-to-date systems and safety gear.

The reality, of course, is more challenging, and there have been a few course corrections in the conversion of the Wanda III, as well as the application of significant technical, financial, and human resources, before she is ready to sail again for the Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre (MSDC) in the summer of 2023.

Just under 30 m (94 ft) long, with a sleek 3.6 m (12 ft) beam and a draft of just 1.8 m (6 ft), Wanda III was one of the fastest boats in Muskoka. Its top speed was 38.6 km per hour (24 mph), driven by a triple-expansion steam engine using the same technology as the engines for the Royal Navy’s minesweepers.

The yacht was built for Margaret Eaton, widow of the department store founder Timothy Eaton, who used it to travel between the train station at the Gravenhurst wharf and her cottage, Ravenscrag, on Lake Rosseau, as well as for entertaining friends. Built to the highest standards using the finest materials, including Honduran mahogany and brass fittings throughout its cabins, it cost a reported $34,574.

In 1930, the launch was sold, reportedly for just $7,000, and transported by water, land, and rail to Lake of Bays. There, beginning in May 1931, she took guests of C.O. Shaw’s Bigwin Inn on excursions around the lake. By 1944, however, the yacht’s passenger-carrying authority had been revoked, and it then changed ownership a number of times, before being donated to a predecessor of the MSDC, and returning to Gravenhurst in 1993. Wanda III’s original steam engine has been removed and lovingly restored, and it is situated at the Muskoka Discovery Centre.

Modern power for Wanda III eliminates negative environmental impacts
The electrically powered Wanda III is capable of sprinting at 25.9 kph (14 kts), although that will consume the battery power quickly, and will normally cruise at a statelier 12.9 kph (7 kts), with a maximum range of 54 km (33 miles), or about 4.9 hours.

Propulsion power is provided by two Elco 100 74.6 kw (100 HP) motors, weighing 336 kg (740 lbs) each, supported by lithium-ion batteries, weighing 816 kg (1,800 lbs), which can be re-charged at the boathouse, at the ships’ dock, or at dock in Port Carling. Backup power comes from two Northern Lights 20 kw (26.8 hp) generators, operating at 1,800 rpm. So, between the batteries and the generator sets, Wanda III’s endurance and range are unlimited, but the plan is to run on batteries alone when there are passengers aboard — meaning no greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, no negative environmental impact.

MSDC Senior Captain Glenn Murley noted that the electrified Wanda III will have more buoyancy and sit higher in the water than the ship used to, but will have a lower centre of gravity. In addition, the refurbished launch has been equipped with a new bow thruster to make it easier to handle at low speeds, such as when docking. And while the modifications to the boat’s performance have been carefully calculated, the rejuvenated yacht had to demonstrate its seaworthiness in formal sea trials for Transport Canada, before it was approved to carry passengers again. The launch should be approved to carry up to 40 passengers, an increase from the original 24.

New components and navigation systems enhance safety
Although electric motors are now increasingly common on all kinds of vessels, the conversion of a hundred-plus year-old yacht is inherently a unique proposition, and the regulators need, understandably, to be convinced of its safety in operation.

While restoration of Wanda III focuses on its sustainable new power plant, many new features have been integrated, including restoration of the steel hull and white oak planking; new bearings, stern tube, rudder and propeller; a new hydraulic steering system; new navigational hardware, radar and radio, as well as new wiring throughout the launch; a new engineers’ lounge; and, a new electronic whistle and signalling. Other additions include new piping and storage tanks for potable water and sewage, and a new second washroom.

Some of the workload is being shouldered by volunteers from MSDC’s Heritage Boatworks, including restoring furniture and the yacht’s fenders, elevating and installing the railings, building life jacket boxes, and installing lifeboat stanchions and the launch’s canvas awnings and covers.

Part of the challenge of restoring and then maintaining a 108-year-old launch is protecting her from the ravages of sun, wind, ice and snow. Here, according to MSDC President John Miller, the organization has taken the long view, building a new 279 square metre (3,000 sq ft) boathouse with water bubbler, so the launch can remain in the water (with her planks in the water) year-round. There is also a custom-built lift that can be used for maintenance, when needed.

How long can the electrically powered Wanda III be expected to last? There are no guarantees, but Wenona, a 9.7 m (32 ft) launch delivered in 1899 and operated on New York State’s Lake George is still running with its original electric motor.

– Allan Austin, Editor

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