Around the world in 60 days

Gareth Cooke | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 4

Futuristic Kiwi wave-piercer Earthrace survived shootings and a fatal collision to become the fastest powerboat to circumnavigate the globe.

“The first guy stepped off their boat onto our transom, pulled a pistol from a holster, pushed it into my forehead and asked why we didn’t stop,” Earthrace skipper, Kiwi Peter Bethune says, recalling his encounter with the Columbian Navy. Only moments before the encounter, he heard the dull thud of bullets ripping into Earthrace’s carbon fibre structure.

His guests listen intently as he explains why he stopped for an unmarked boat crewed by five heavily-armed men on a hunch that they really were Columbian Navy and not pirates.

He had already opened the throttles and was starting to outrun the mystery vessel, but the sight of five rifles aimed at him and a warning over the VHF that it would be open season if he did not stop within 10 seconds convinced Bethune to take a chance that the men were who they claimed to be.

As the armed men in civilian clothing boarded Earthrace, Bethune wondered if the decision might have been his last. A tense exchange followed as he tried to convince the invaders he was not running drugs. Relief came when one of them said: “I’ve seen this boat on TV, it’s the one that runs on that funny fuel.”

In other circumstances, Bethune might have disputed the description of bio-fuels as ‘funny’, but the men with the guns were granted a bit of poetic licence that day. For Bethune, it was proof – albeit somewhat alarming proof – that he was getting his message to the world.


On his futuristic powerboat, Bethune has been on a three-year crusade preaching to the world about bio-fuels. At the heart of his crusade was a record attempt for a powerboat circumnavigation of the world. The record was achieved in 2008 on his second bid, and involved more drama than a Hollywood blockbuster.

His two attempts included the usual storms, mountainous seas, semi-submerged objects and cramped living quarters common to all small-boat oceanic adventures.

But the 44-year-old New Zealander had to deal with much more – prison time, gun shots, tragedy and mechanical failures – all the while staring over the precipice at financial ruin.

Considering the obstacles he overcame, one would think the record is something Bethune cherishes, but surprisingly, it means very little to him. “I didn’t do it to get the record, I did it to promote bio-fuels,” he says.

Bethune has total conviction in his belief that bio-fuels have a role to play in a sustainable future, so much so that he has put himself in debt to the tune of $2m to get his message out to the world. Bio-fuel is the reason behind his dogged determination to break the record. Without this drive, Earthrace would be the boat that nearly set a world record, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as the boat that set a new world record while running on bio-fuel.

However, despite a ride that has often been more roller coaster than plain sailing, Bethune has few regrets. “I don’t regret it at all. I’ve been able to live and work on something that I totally believe in and a lot of us go through life never having that opportunity. I’ve been blessed with this boat. I’ve had some of the most amazing days of my life on this boat and some of the absolute worst. I’ve lived a dream on it, travelled the oceans, got to meet heaps of people, and we have made a difference. In some countries we’ve got a huge profile, and Earthrace and bio-fuels are quite synonymous.”


There is one thing, however, that still torments Bethune – a nagging sense of sorrow over an incident that unfolded at night off the coast of Guatemala just 10 days into his first record attempt in 2007.

“Guatemala remains the one black mark against Earthrace,” he says. “Looking back on the incident, though, there is nothing I would do differently. I feel that, under the circumstances, the right decisions were made.

“During the night we picked up three or four of these small fishing skiffs on radar,” Bethune says, explaining the harrowing incident. “They had no lights and had a really low radar signature because they were so low to the water. I was in my bunk for a while when I felt the boat run over something. And as soon as it happened, I knew what it was. I went out the back and it was like a horror scene – guys in the water screaming, their boat demolished, and a petrol slick on the water. One guy was able to swim to us and climb aboard, but the second guy was stuck under some netting about 10m from our boat. I jumped in the water and managed to drag him to the boat. By this time, though, the third guy had disappeared.”

As the crew cast their spotlight on the black water, Bethune swam the shark-infested waters looking for the missing fisherman. After almost an hour, the sharks forced him to give up.

Resigned to not finding the missing crewmember, the Earthrace crew turned their attention to the second fisherman, whose condition had deteriorated.

“The second guy was pretty badly injured,” Bethune recalls. The decision was made to put a saline drip into the injured man, but this did not sit well with the remaining fisherman.

“The first guy started to get all aggro; he thought it was evil what we were about to do, but we had no option. We ended up tying the first guy up with cable ties so we could get the drip in,” he said.

After transferring the two fishermen to a navy vessel, the Earthrace crew members were arrested and detained in a military prison.

“Initially it was quite intimidating, as it seemed everyone we had to deal with was heavily armed,” says Bethune. “It was probably quite good that we were detained though, or it might have been pretty hostile.”

The crew was released on the second day, but as the skipper, Bethune spent a total of nine days in prison and faced civil and criminal charges.

Bethune’s cavalry came in the form of his insurance company, which made significant payments to the families of the fishermen. The body of the third fisherman was never found and the charges of negligence causing death were dropped by the Guatemalan authorities.

Although they carried on with their attempt and, remarkably, still had a chance of breaking the record, the circumstances surrounding their heart-wrenching accident in Guatemala, combined with further problems, were too much to overcome. The mission was aborted.

It would be another year before Earthrace would return to its globe-spanning crusade. Finally, on April 27, 2008, in Sagunto, Spain, the record-breaking attempt was resumed, and this time nothing would stop the adventurers. Sixty days, 23 hours and 49 minutes after leaving port, Earthrace returned to Sagunto, smashing the old record by over two weeks.


Promotional tours have played a big part in the Earthrace project, with the boat’s dramatic looks proving an invaluable tool in drawing people to the bio-fuel cause. To date, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Earthrace trimaran and over 2.5 million have visited its website.

Bethune’s passion for bio-fuels was born partly from his time working in the oil industry as an exploration engineer and has even led him to use his own body fat as fuel for Earthrace. One of the earlier batches of fuel used in the boat had a personal touch after he and his crew underwent liposuction to extract fat that was turned into fuel.

But what of the bad press bio-fuels have received that contradict Bethune’s message? “For every litre of bio-fuel sold, it’s a litre of upstream revenue the oil companies miss out on,” says Bethune. “Take, for example, BP Australia. If it sells a litre of fuel in Australia, it makes the same regardless of whether it is bio-fuel or not. But BP in London cares deeply because if a litre of bio-fuel is sold, it hasn’t sold a litre of oil to Australia in the first place. So it’s understandable that the oil industry does not like bio-fuels.

“Their core business is not bio-fuels; it’s sucking stuff up out of the ground. If you dig beneath all the talk of deforestation and people starving in Africa because of bio-fuels, I’m convinced the oil industry is at the end of that. They talk about bio-fuels being unsustainable, but where’s the sustainability measure for oil and gas?

“We can’t just sit here and continue to consume oil and hope that it’s going to be alright. We need to come up with other options. We can’t grow enough to replace what we currently consume, but bio-fuels can be a really important part of the mix. It’s not a silver bullet for transport energy, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

If Bethune had his way, it would be mandatory for a percentage of transport fuel to come from bio-fuels sourced from within the boundaries of each country.

According to Bethune, New Zealand and Australia are dragging the chain when it comes to bio-fuels. “Countries like New Zealand and Australia have so much to offer with agricultural-based economies and a lot of by-products from agriculture that are not being used. Every country in the OECD has bio-fuel available to road users for transport except one – New Zealand.”


The record shows that Bethune skippered Earthrace to a new world record circumnavigation covering the 38,624km (24,000 miles) in 60 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes, all of it due entirely to bio-fuels and making good use of renewable resources. Along the way, Bethune educated thousands of people on the potential of bio-fuels.

However, there is an interesting comparison to another circumnavigation record achieved in 2008. Using only wind and solar energy, Francis Joyon set a new record for a single-handed circumnavigation in a yacht. His time was ⅓ days faster than Earthrace and he covered an additional 6437km (4000 miles).

Bethune’s determination to not only succeed but also to raise awareness of environmental issues is outstanding and the world needs more of his ilk, but without taking anything away from Bethune’s achievement, could it be that Joyon has unwittingly given us a tiny peak into real sustainability for the future?

Functionally futuristic

Part submarine, part trimaran, Earthrace was designed specifically to set a new world record.

Earthrace’s futuristic looks are a result of function rather than form. Unlike traditional deep-V designs that are intended to go over waves, Earthrace is designed to go through waves, and with minimal resistance. Her lines were drawn by the Craig Loomes Design Group, specialists in wave-piercing design, and utilises the same design principles as those used for commercial vessels and luxury superyachts.

Capable of being submersed up to 7m underwater, Earthrace made the Guinness Book of Records as the only vessel, other than a submarine, designed to go the most distance underwater. Even the distinctive horns which house the air-cooling system for the engines are designed to be submerged.

Prior to the design being finalised, a 6.5m prototype was constructed, tested, and modified over a period of several months. The testing process included a deliberate voyage into the teeth of an 80-knot gale off the west coast of New Zealand. Skipper Bethune describes the weather as the worst he encountered on Earthrace, but it gave him huge confidence in its design and structure.

The carbon spars connecting the three hulls are literally bullet-proof (the crew hid in them while being shot at by the Colombian Navy) and each spar contains $250,000 of carbon. In extreme conditions, they move approximately 100mm each. By going through waves rather than over and thus reducing the pounding motion, Earthrace maintained a high average speed, even in rugged conditions.

Fuel efficiency, the other advantage of the design, proved critical to success. Earthrace travelled from Portugal to Australia without refuelling. At 11km/h (6 knots) she has a range of 13,000nm and at 46km/h (25 knots) will go 2000nm before a pitstop is required. Her top speed is 75km/h (40 knots).

Cummins MerCruiser Diesel supplied two QSC-540 engines and these ran on 100 per cent bio-diesel without a glitch. Since launching in 2006, the engines have done 12,000 hours.

Built in Auckland by Calibre Boats, Bethune says Earthrace is a staunchly New Zealand boat, but is now reluctantly up for sale.

When asked why he was selling his world record-holder, Bethune was philosophical. “Much as I’d like to keep her, I have some debts to pay off, and so will sell Earthrace to clear them,” he said.

Given the unconventional appearance of the boat, the ideal customer would probably be someone with a genuine appreciation for nautical design or, perhaps, an aspiring super-hero. They would also need to have at least $US1.5m to spare.

“The crew of Earthrace will deliver her anywhere in the world,” Bethune said, adding: “The new owner will have to pay for fuel and canal transits as required.”