Electric boating

They're greener, quieter, and much slower. Why cottagers should consider electric boats

By Douglas HunterDouglas Hunter

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Technically, electric power doesn’t mean having to go slow. Electric motors can produce oodles of thrust. The problem is fuel supply, the energy stored in onboard batteries. You could have a high-powered planing boat for waterskiing, but you might be hailing for a tow back to the dock after about 12 minutes of running time with conventional lead-acid batteries. The more batteries you carry, the more “fuel” you have, but such batteries are very heavy (the six on Greenhorn I total more than 360 kg), and if you keep adding batteries, the boat gets heavier, which in turn requires more power to push it along, which requires more batteries to keep it running…and so on. Batteries employing nickel, lithium, or manganese, which are used in rechargeable consumer devices and hybrid cars, have much more power for their weight, but costs (and sometimes safety standards) are holding back widespread use in electric boats.

Hayes believes that as electric cars evolve, boaters will benefit. “Technology that is just barely acceptable for a car would be great for a boat, and technology that worked well in a car would be revolutionary for electric boats. Not only will improved technology be developed, but both new and existing technologies will be commercialized for cars, bringing down the costs for boats. I have no doubt that these forces will lead to electric boats with greater capabilities and fewer and fewer limitations.”

He sees the market taking hold among baby boomers, who are slowing down and looking for a less go-fast, more contemplative recreational experience, be they cruisers or cottagers. “There’s also the change in people’s attitudes, with global warming and the whole green movement. It’s not just gas prices. It’s a feel-good thing. To me, being green is important but it’s not the main thing. Cruising quietly is.”

And the greatest technical headache of e-boats may be their greatest asset. Because they have to throttle back to be practical, they do invite you to embrace a slower pace, to not be in such a hurry, to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife and the conversation along the way. “The reason for doing it,” Hayes says, summing up the whole electric-boat project, “is the silence.”

All speed is relative. On open water, without a near-shore reference point, plugging along at three knots might seem painful to some people. But close to shore, the world starts to whiz by. As we come into the narrows at Chaffeys, my brain persuades me we’re fairly booting along, and I hand the wheel over to Hayes and let him do the docking. As we pause for a spell at the lock before beginning the return trip, the world starts to speed up even as we’re tied to the dock. I’m checking my phone for messages. I’m thinking about stuff I have to do, including an

oil change for my sailboat’s gas engine before she’s hauled out for the winter in another week.

This is no good at all. We need to get Greenhorn I moving, so the world can slow down again.

Want to slow down too? A few electric avenues:

Here are four commercial options for cottage boaters who want to tap into electric power.

  • The Duffy Electric Boat line of fibreglass launches runs from 14–24 feet and is now available in central Canada from PCS Marine Technologies of Manotick, Ont.
  • Torqeedo is a German company generating much press for its innovative electric outboards. Light-weight and highly portable, the Travel models use an integral lithium battery instead of separate conventional lead-acid batteries. The 801 model produces power comparable to a 2-hp gas engine and only weighs 11.6 kg. The battery can be detached and recharged at any household outlet. The Cruise models require a separate battery bank and, to that end, the company is planning to introduce North America’s first lithium-manganese battery for marine use. It will offer tremendous “energy density,” which means lots of power in a small, maintenance-free package, an improvement over larger and heavier lead-acid batteries,
  • Bear Mountain Boats, near Peterborough, is completing a 30-foot hybrid launch, integrating solar charging and a diesel generator with electric propulsion. The company hopes to develop a 20-footer for cottagers, likely with simpler recharging options. “I picture it sitting at the dock at the cottage,” designer Steve Killing says, “and while I’m at work during the week, it’s charging. And at the end of the weekend, I just leave it to recharge.”

This article was originally published on January 10, 2011

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