Electric boating

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

By Douglas HunterDouglas Hunter


Could electric boats eclipse the crowd-pleasing pontoon?

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“The best analogy I can offer,” John Hayes tells me, “is that it’s like canoeing without a paddle.”

He says this as we cast off from the dock near Lock 36 on the Rideau system on Newboro Lake. Greenhorn I, his 18-foot homebuilt cruising tug, drifts momentarily sideways; then, suddenly, noiselessly, that sideways turns into forward — a smooth and steady progress across the water on a gorgeous September day in cottage country. The temperature is in the mid-20s, the sky blue, the conifers in their emerald radiance.

We never run a blower to clear explosive gasoline fumes from the bilge. I don’t hear the usual da-clunk of an outboard or an I/O dropping into forward gear. Our voices don’t have to shift into outshout-the-engine mode. We’re under way at three and a half knots, making for Chaffeys Locks, about eight kilo­metres distant, and we’ll be there in 90 highly contemplative minutes.

We aren’t using paddles or the wind. We’re in an electric boat, an innovation that manages to be both cottage country’s potential next big thing and one of the oldest locomotive ways to get around on the water.

The history of electric boats

Before boats ever had a gas or diesel engine, they had an electric one. We were just starting to get the hang of steam, in fact, when electrons were first enlisted to make boats go forward. The earliest-known electric boat arose from a grant provided by Czar Nicholas I of Russia in 1838 to a German physicist, Moritz Hermann Jacobi. But the electric-boat movement didn’t really take off until the 1880s, with a surge of innovation in motor designs. Electric boats became so popular on the Thames in England that by 1902, there were more than 20 charging stations on land and another two on floating barges.

By the 1930s, though, electric boats had all but vanished — except for such specialized applications as submarines. Gasoline and (especially) diesel engines had done them in, in much the same way that these engines had crushed the initial popularity of electric cars. Internal combustion engines were more powerful and easier to refuel.

The electric-boat comeback began in the 1970s. It was to varying degrees a practical response to speed limits on certain waters and the expense of fossil fuels (especially in Europe), as well as the manifestation of a greening public sensibility, not to mention a focal point of amateur-engineering enthusiasm. A 5-mph speed limit in Newport Beach, Calif., for example, prompted Marshall Duffield to found Duffy Electric Boat Company, one of today’s most successful electric-boat producers, in 1970. The invention of the electric trolling motor helped start the remarkable return of recreational electric boats to English waters around 1975.

In Canadian cottage country, though, the electric boat has yet to catch on. Practicalities of battery capacity mean that electric propulsion remains—for now—best suited to low-speed applications. Cottagers still have a need for speed: for towing waterskiers and wakeboarders, getting into town for groceries, outrunning bad weather on big water. But enthusiasts like John Hayes want cottagers to know that an electric boat can have a place in their summer fun, if they can grasp the joys of slowing down and not only watching the world go by, but listening to it as well.

Aboard the Greenhorn I

I thought cruising in Greenhorn I would remind me of sailing. But the only similarity, beyond the pace, is the resonant fwib-bloop-glub of water splashing against the hull, something you’ll never hear with such pin-drop clarity in any conventional powerboat. Truth be told, my own sailboat routinely goes twice as fast as Greenhorn I. But sailing is never this leisurely. Sails are being trimmed, winches are chattering, and the course is constantly being adjusted to the shifting breeze, all while the boat is heeling to varying degrees. It’s pleasurable work, but work nonetheless, and I fidget so much with the plethora of adjustable things that my wife has begun advocating serious medication.

Aboard Greenhorn I, once Hayes has dialed the three individual speed controls for the trolling motors to the desired level of power consumption, I just steer. Hayes makes sandwiches in the pilothouse as we converse. If this is like canoeing without a paddle, then it’s also like canoeing while standing up, eating a sandwich, and checking your BlackBerry for messages. I’m not minding the pace. Hayes tells me he runs her sometimes at a screaming four knots, but finds that rate “frantic.” We can hear loons calling each other, and can actually get near the birds without spooking them.

You can’t rush progress. It took 36 years for Greenhorn I to go from seemingly interminable family garage project to Rideau-system conversation starter. An electrical engineer, Hayes created Greenhorn’s propulsion system himself. It provides enough thrust for 10 hours

of running between dockside plug-ins. A bank of six deep-cycle batteries, concealed beneath bench seats in the little cabin, powers the three electric trolling motors in the stern.

It’s not just the unusual power system of this vessel that calls for attention, but the vessel itself. Hayes’ father took plans for a 25-foot mini-tug, published in an old issue of Sports Afield magazine, and scaled them down to 72 per cent so the project would fit in the family’s garage. When it seemed destined to remain uncompleted, Hayes stepped in and in 2004 got the boat (which he co-owns with his dad) into the water. At first, Greenhorn I putted around with an outboard motor. Then the puzzle of how he could brew coffee on board with an electric appliance led Hayes to design an entire onboard electrical system that includes propulsion.

“Greenhorn is a floating science experiment, partly with technology, partly with people,” he explains. He is interested in how folks respond to the pocket cruiser, and how the technology might be shaped to serve them. He’s not trying to sell any particular product but rather the potential of electric boating. “There’s an untapped market for electric boats. I want to encourage it, to expose people to it, to see what excites them. I’m convinced you can build an electric boat with current technology that would be comfortable for most people, not just for me.”

A great sales point is that Greenhorn I, like most electric boats, is exceptionally clean. Without gas, there are no fumes or exhaust; without a gas engine, there’s no oil to spill in the bilge. It also helps that Greenhorn I is a looker, and Hayes knows it. He enjoys the waves and smiles of passing boaters, the questions she elicits. Most of all, he enjoys the sheer surprise she delivers. We overtake a couple out in their kayaks, and they do a classic double take when they realize that a substantial 18-foot vessel has stolen up on them. Surprise invariably turns to delight. Once Greenhorn I has caught you unawares, you have to wonder how she pulled it off. She’s one sneaky little boat.

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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