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Saturday, August 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Strange watercraft visits Seattle

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The high personal and monetary cost of a dream is on display this weekend at Seattle's Bell Harbor Marina at Pier 66.

The dream is of a revolutionary powerboat that runs on fuel from animal fat or soybeans or other biodiesel, and will set a world record for circumnavigating the globe.

Pete Bethune, 41, of New Zealand, is quite candid about its personal cost.

On Friday, he was saying he didn't know how back home — where his wife and daughters ages 10 and 11 await him — the family would pay for the electric or phone bills this week.

It's two weeks till his wife, Sharyn, gets paid from her job as a receptionist. They've already refinanced their home three times.

Still, Bethune said, his wife backs his odyssey.

"But she worries about the money. She hates owing money to people," he said.

Bethune said that in between selling his assets and borrowing money, the boat has personally cost him $1.25 million. He used to be financially comfortable, after a career as an oil-exploration engineer, and as one of the founders of a tech company he sold to help finance the boat.

But that dream, the 78-foot, high-tech Earthrace, keeps calling him.

The silver-colored, three-hulled craft, made mostly of carbon composite, is designed to slice through ocean waves instead of riding on top. Piercing the waves gives a smoother ride, and allows the boat to run at high speeds even in rough seas.

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And it's because of the unique design that Bethune believes in another dream: That he and his crew of volunteers can set a world speed record for a powerboat going around the world. The current record is 74 days, 20 hours, 58 minutes.

On a trip set to begin March 1, 2007, in Barbados, Bethune plans to break that record.

He estimated the cost of the trip at $500,000. He has no sponsor lined up.

"I don't know who it'll be, but there will be a sponsor," he said.

Somehow, as the Earthrace has racked up $3 million in costs, Bethune cannot give up.

"My whole family tends to be obsessive," he said. "You end up totally focused on one thing."

He said his interest in biodiesel began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he worked in oil exploration.

"Within the industry, you know there's not much oil and gas left. It's going to get harder and harder to extract it," he said. Along the way, Bethune also earned a master's in business, and had to write a 20,000-word essay. He chose to write about alternative fuels. Then, a boat-builder friend happened to show Bethune a video about wave-piercing boats. They talked about building one for diving and fishing.

Somehow, said Bethune, all of that coalesced into his dream of a biodiesel, wave-piercing, record-setting boat.

On Feb. 24 of this year, the Earthrace made its first voyage.

By then, said Bethune, he had sold his interest in the tech company, sold a tract of investment timberland he owned, refinanced his home and borrowed money from family, friends and a finance company.

Seattle is one of the Earthrace's stops on a five-month promotional tour that includes the West and East coasts.

At the various stops, he and the four crew members stay with volunteers who have heard about the boat. In various cities, biodiesel firms, such as Imperium Renewables of Seattle, donate the fuel.

For $5, today and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., visitors can board the Earthrace and hear from Bethune about his dream.

Regrets about the cost of it all?

"No," said Bethune. "You know, I do have the coolest boat in the world."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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