16 Ways to Generate Electricity on a Sailboat: The Complete Guide

How do you manage to generate electricity when you’re out on the water in a sailboat? If you aren’t a sailor, you may have never even considered this. For the person who just bought a boat, however, this is the guide for you.

How do you generate electricity on a sailboat? One can generate electricity either with generators, batteries, or adaptions made to your boat to capture energy from the water, sun, or wind.

While generators and batteries must be recharged or refueled somehow, there are a few unique modifications you can make on your boat to make it self-sustaining, at least in terms of electricity. If you don’t want to put in the work for making changes to your boat, a generator or battery is an easy fix.

Stored Energy Options to Generate Electricity on a Sailboat

These are all the options you can use to generate electricity while on the sailboat. Unlike the options listed in the following section, these are all portable stores of energy you can bring onto the sailboat with you. They store energy, whereas the second group produces it.

There are many different ways you can bring energy onboard with you for your usage while on your boat. Two different common ones you’ll find are:

  • Generators
  • Batteries

And one you won’t find so often is:

  • Inverters

There are some similarities between the three, especially when you’re looking into electrical generators versus batteries. We’ll start with generators before moving to inverters and finishing with batteries.

1. Hybrid Generators for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

There are many ways to generate electricity on your sailboat, but the one we’d most suggest to you is hybrid generators. These are generators that can run a variety of ways. You don’t have to dock every time your generator runs out of fuel, but on a cloudy day, your generator won’t be dead on the water.

Many electric generators, which we’ll cover in the following section, have other options aside from plugging it in and charging it of an outlet. For instance, they’ll also have a tank for gasoline or diesel. In other cases, you can purchase a solar panel to work with your generator.

When it comes to choosing something for your sailboat, you want something with multiple methods of fueling or charging it. At least once, you’ll probably forget to fill up the tank with fuel before you cast off, or forget to charge your electric generator.

You’re also better prepared in emergencies with a hybrid generator. If something happens, your generator may run out of diesel before you can contact anyone. With a solar or electric option, you’ll have backup in any emergency.

2. Electric Generators for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

Electric generators are one of the newest things, and one of the best options on the market for this purpose. Many have available kits you can add to change how you charge it, from swapping out the plug to fit a different outlet to adding a solar panel for green energy.

Electric generators come in a variety of sizes, from small ones intended to be used on camping trips to charge your phone or DVD player to large ones you can run your house off of in emergencies. They’re essentially a large battery pack, similar to the one you may have for your smartphone.

The best part about an electric generator is the cost of charging it versus the cost of filling up a generator running on fossil fuel. While it may take a serious amount of energy to fully charge an electric generator, it’ll only be a small increase in your electric usage compared to the cost of filling up daily.

You’re also maintaining a cleaner airspace for yourself and everyone around you, including the marine life you’re sailing above. If using green energy is important to you, read down about solar generators, or look for an electric model with a solar panel option.

3. Diesel Generators for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

This is probably the most commonly used source of electricity when people are on their boats. Diesel generators are easy to find at any local home improvement store for a variety of prices and uses. Diesel generators also tend to outlive their gas counterparts.

Typically, diesel generators are loud, smelly, and bulky. However, they’re easy to purchase in store, as is diesel. Newer models are becoming smaller and quieter, with better regulations on the exhaust system. Older generators have exhaust systems that allow more diesel out into the air, leading to the smell.

Diesel engines also will last you a long time. These are frequently considered the workhouses of engines, putting out an impressive amount of power as well as outliving their competitors. You’ll also go through a good amount of oil, as diesel engines are famed for burning through it.

However, things like electric generators and battery packs are taking over the market for sailboat electricity. These are less expensive and smaller, without the diesel smell of the generator. They’ll also save you on expenses by not requiring diesel or any other fuel.

4. Bio Diesel Generator for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

These are almost a subset of diesel generators. However, they run on a different fuel which requires slightly different parts, so they deserve their own recognition.

Diesel engines are surprisingly easy to convert to bio diesel. If you have a diesel generator but want to convert it to bio diesel, you’ll only need to find a shop near you offering the service. Most diesel car shops won’t work on your generator, though, so you’ll need to find someone specializing in it.

Bio diesel is a great option if you’re trying to minimize your carbon footprint. Instead of being made completely of diesel, which is a limited resource and a damaging one to burn, bio diesel is mixed with a biological resource. Typically, this is used frying oil mixed with a ratio of 80/20, diesel to oil.

Neither diesel nor bio diesel will last long in storage. Gas, diesel, and bio diesel all have a shelf life of about a year, after which you shouldn’t use it. After a year, the fuel becomes thick and gloppy while the oil separates out of it. It won’t burn properly in this state and will damage your generator.

5. Gas Generators for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

These are the second-most popular generators for using on your sailboat. Again, we prefer to avoid these because of the noise and the smell, which can be a real buzzkill. However, you can find many quieter options on the market compared to what used to be there.

As a rule of thumb, gas generators are going to be less expensive or smelly than diesel. During the winter months, gas is cheaper than diesel as well, which lowers the overall cost of the generator even more. Why do so many people prefer diesel over gas generators then?

Diesel generators typically outlive other engines. This isn’t always true, of course, but think of the many old diesel semi-trucks that are still running on the road every day. Diesel generators can also sit with fuel inside them for longer, while gas generator’s engines will gunk up quickly if you allow fuel to sit in them.

Gas generators will be easier on your bank account, both initially and down the road, compared to diesel generators. If you remember nothing else about choosing a fossil fuel generator, remember that diesel lasts forever, but gas is less expensive initially and on the long run.

6. Propane Generators for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

Propane generators aren’t nearly as popular as gas and diesel generators, but they do have their advantages. While diesel and gas can’t sit around for very long, propane doesn’t have that issue. You can safely hold propane for over a year, and it will still burn just the same.

On the flip side, propane is more expensive. We’ve established that gas generators are the least expensive; propane generators are the most expensive to keep fueled. Propane is harder to come by and used significantly less than gas or diesel, which can also be a problem if you’re relying on your generator.

In a power outage affecting stores, you won’t be able to get gasoline or diesel. This is because the pumps won’t be working. With a propane generator, however, you don’t have to worry about pumping anything. While everyone else is driving two towns over for diesel, you can be on your boat.

7. Solar Generators for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

We’ve already gone over the electric generators that can be adapted to use solar energy, but there are also generators that use solar power as their primary source of energy. These typically come with larger solar panels than just the electric generator adaption kits do.

When it comes to generators, “panels” may not mean what you’re thinking of. Instead of ones you’ll see on people’s houses, these are often foldable for travel. If you have the option between the two, go for one that folds in order to save space on the boat.

If you’re interested in living off the grid on your sailboat, solar generators are one of the best ways to do so. You won’t have to come in for fuel ever again, and you’ll be using only green energy. With some panels, you can even hang them from your mast when you aren’t moving.

If you look into travel generators, you’ll find a lot of solar options that don’t require extra panels at all. Travel generators are typically solar or electrically powered and are smaller. If you’re only looking for something small, look into these, as the solar panels are the entire outer case of the generator instead of a separate panel.

8. Inverters for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

What is an inverter, and how is it different from generators or batteries? An inverter is simply a device that converts DC energy from a battery or a serious of batteries into AC power for whatever your power needs are. AC power is what most devices use.

A lot of inverters are switching to using lithium-ion batteries, which are rechargeable and last the longest. In the sections below, we cover batteries separately, as you can purchase them without an inverter. There are also pros and cons to each type when it comes to using them.

The best part about inverters is that when the battery goes bad inside it, you don’t have to buy a whole new inverter. Instead, you’ll only have to replace the battery. When you’re replacing the battery, however, remember that you must replace it with the same kind of battery you removed.

The only reason you’ll need to replace your inverter is if it’s damaged, you want to switch to a different type of battery, or the battery goes bad inside the inverter and damages it. If you notice any damages to your inverter, be careful, as damage in the wrong place could lead to a shock.

9. Lithium Batteries for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

Lithium batteries are one of the most common types of batteries out there today. Whether it’s in your electronic cigarette or in your phone or your gaming device, you probably have more in your home right now than you realize. Not all of them are this small, though.

You can purchase lithium batteries large enough to run whatever you may need on your sailboat. These are rechargeable, which you can do a variety of ways depending on the battery, and last a long time. They’re also quiet, something generators very much are not.

You can also use several lithium batteries at once to power different things. The only thing you’ll need to remember when buying a lithium battery is that it isn’t set up for you already. You’ll still need an inverter to work with it to convert the DC power to AC power before it can be used.

For more information on using lithium batteries or battery banks, which we cover in the next section, look into TrioTravels’s post on using lithium batteries to bring electric to his sailboat. He goes into deeper details on lithium batteries, battery banks, and how to set it up with your boat.

10. Battery Banks for Using on a Sailboat for Electricity

Today, many people habitually carry a portable battery that they can charge their phone off of when they need to. If you don’t, you may keep one in your car or tucked in your luggage for while you’re traveling. The point is, we nearly all have portable batteries now. How much can they power?

It turns out, a lot. Many of these battery banks use lithium batteries, which we just covered. Whereas you’ll have to make adjustments and adaptions by just buying a lithium battery, battery banks have all that work done for you. It’s as simple as plug and play.

You’ll need to match your battery pack size to what you’re powering or bring multiples. Keep in mind, you won’t be able to plug everyone’s phone, tablet, and laptop into one battery pack. Unlike plain lithium batteries, battery packs typically have a set number of plugs.

The cheaper and smaller your battery pack is, the shorter the amount of time you’ll be able to use it is. If you want to invest in or more battery packs, spend the extra money to get one from a reputable electronics seller, versus the one you can pick up at the dollar store.

11. Open Lead Acid Batteries for Generating Energy on a Sailboat

These are the oldest technology for generating electricity on your boat, but they aren’t the best, as we already covered. The biggest draw of these is their low price point and all the information you can discover about using them with your sailboat, versus anything else.

Open lead acid batteries are made up of an electrolyte fluid inside. As the battery is used, you have to regularly check the fluid level. If it gets too low, you’ll damage the battery casing and risk the fluid leaking out. You also have to be careful when checking the fluid not to spill it.

You can recharge these batteries in a variety of ways, including the most popular today, off lithium-ion batteries. It’s highly suggested you charge them after each use, as they become dangerous when the charge is under 50%.

These are still the cheapest and most widely used rechargeable batteries, despite being the original battery plan from the 19th century. Being the grandfather of all batteries isn’t even enough to make this one retire.

12. AGM and Gel Batteries for Generating Energy on a Sailboat

These are very similar to open lead batteries, but with the exception of using a gel instead of a liquid. This way, there is no liquid to evaporate or spill out. However, a gel is significantly heavier than a liquid, making it less portable.

Just like with other batteries, this one requires an inverter to change the energy from DC to AC. There are many inverters that come with AGM batteries instead of open lead batteries, the company preferring the more dependable gel.

The gel also improves on performance and lifetime when compared to the liquid. However, as well as being heavier, the gel is more expensive. You won’t be spending nearly as much as a lithium battery, but these aren’t the cheapest either.

13. Sealed Lead Batteries for Generating Energy on a Sailboat

With these, there’s no liquid or gel. Instead, there’s a chemical reaction inside them producing and then storing energy until the manufacturer’s date. After the date, however, you’ll simply have to toss the battery and buy a new one.

This can lead to serious waste if you’re regularly using these. This is why unless you only go out occasionally and use your battery, stick with something rechargeable. You’ll leave a smaller carbon footprint and won’t have to buy new batteries constantly.

If you aren’t using it often, this is a safer option than the open lead batteries because you don’t have any liquid to worry about. On the flip side, it isn’t rechargeable, unlike gel batteries, but it is cheaper than them.

14. A Fuel Cell for Generating Energy on a Sailboat?

Fuel cells are one of the hottest topics right now. If manufacturers could produce a low-cost fuel cell, it would be one of the most ideal solutions for generating energy while out on the water. In fact, fuel cells would be an ideal solution to produce a lot of energy for different needs.

Fuel cells use a chemical reaction inside them to produce energy. This energy can then be harness and used while the reaction is continually taking place in the fuel cell.

Right now, fuel cells are too expensive for the average person to buy. However, in the future, you may find yourself looking into fuel cells. They’re cleaner energy than generators that run off fossil fuels, and they’ll last longer than your typical battery, even a lithium battery.

Unlike other green energy options, fuel cells don’t rely on any externals for power. No matter how cloudy of a day it is, you’ll still be able to have power with a fuel cell compared to solar panels.

Internal Ways to Generate Electricity on a Sailboat

Now that we’ve covered the ways you can bring power onto the sailboat with you, we’ll go into different ways you can create energy while on your sailboat. You’ll only have to use what’s around you and make a few adaptions on your boat.

The best part about these is that you can live off the grid. With battery packs and generators, you’ll have to come back to land to restock, whether it’s fuel or just to plug in and charge. With these options, you won’t have to go back on land to refill your electricity again.

15. Hydrogenerators for Generating Electricity on a Sailboat

Hydrogenerators literally means “water generator.” Just like with wind generators in the following section, these also spin around to produce energy. They’re simply underwater versus up high, using the current of the water instead of the wind.

As you sail, the hydrogenerator uses the water flow to create energy. You’ll need an alternator to work with this one or the next, much like how you need an inverter to use a battery. Alternators simply work to convert the energy of the water flow into usable, AC power.

The only issue with hydrogenerators is the drag they sometimes cause. Because it’s down in the water below you, but hanging off your boat, it’ll slow you down. There are some made to lessen the effects of this.

Also, you won’t be able to gather energy while docked, obviously. The hydrogenerator will only produce energy while it’s moving, so you’ll need to make sure everything is charged at the end of your trip, as you won’t be able to create any energy till you’re far off at sea.

16. Wind Generators for Generating Electricity on a Sailboat

We all know that wind can produce energy for us to harness and use, but did you know you can do that on the open sea? The high-speed winds you may encounter out on the water are ideal for racking up the energy. You’ll also need an alternator to convert the energy.

To set up a wind generator, you’ll have to attach a windmill to the top of your mast. You can affix it to other places as well, but the highest spot is the most likely to have the best winds. You’ll then have your alternator convert the energy into AC power, and the electricity will move forward or into storage, depending on your setup.

Just like with solar energy, this is an ideal option for those looking to move off the grid or only use green energy. However, you may want to keep a backup option. Only during a strong wind that you can feel will the wheel turn and produce energy. Otherwise, it will sit lifeless.

The wind is also felt more strongly when you have one of these installed. The pinwheel atop the master is constantly spinning with the wind, which you can typically feel from inside the boat. This can lead to tipping and an uneven, bumpy ride. However, you use these while docked.

Final Thoughts on Ways to Generate Electricity on a Sailboat

There are many ways to generate or store energy on your sailboat for whatever you may need. The things to keep in mind are what you’ll be using it for, how often, and how important green energy is to you.

With this plethora of options, you should have no problems finding the perfect solution for you. You can also use any combination of these. Try using batteries and inverter and then a generator, or go straight to wind generators and hydrogenerators!  


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

Recent Posts