Electric Boating: Now or Never?

by
September 17th, 2012

Team Scarab’s Kona 17 with Torqueedo electric motors.

 

With nationwide gasoline prices once again edging past the four dollar mark in many places, the search for more economical energy sources is an undeniable priority, especially among recreational power boaters. And understandably, one of the most attractive alternative solutions to fossil-based fuels is electricity.

Electric boats are nothing new in the marine industry. Undoubtedly the most successful application of battery or solar powered recreational boats has been the rise in popularity of the 18 to 22-foot electric lake and harbor cruiser brands like the Duffy, ElectraCraft, and American Beauty. Quiet, smooth, and economical to operate, these boats have endured themselves to boaters on small private lakes where gasoline powered boats are prohibited and within the confines of well protected marinas where they’re often affectionately referred to as sunset cocktail cruisers. Simply cruise for an hour or two, return to the dock, plug them in and in the morning they’re recharged and ready to go again.

But everyone’s idea of boating fun isn’t limited to speeds of ten miles an hour or less, or a range that’s defined in an hour or minutes rather than miles. If electric powered boats are going to make it in the mainstream they have to be capable of going farther, faster, and at an initial purchase price that’s competitive with similar sized internal combustion powered boats. And that’s the question: will they and when?

In the past couple of years, significant progress appears to have been made in making this a reality. There are currently three separate U.S. based companies that have successfully designed and built working prototypes capable of delivering planing speed (25+ mph) performance. Two of the companies, Correct Craft and Epic, have chosen the family ski/wakeboard boat genre while the third, Pure Watercraft, has opted for a more conventional sport bowrider model prototype. This trio will soon be joined by a fourth, the Kona 17, which is the brainchild of highly regarded marine designer and innovator, Larry Smith of Wellcraft/Scarab fame.

Ski Nautique’s Electric Nautique prototype debuted 18 months ago.

Of the quartet, Epic appears to have gained the most traction in this fledgling marketplace with its 232SE,  now in production and performing to the expectations of several new owners according to Epic VP, Gary Smith. “We’ve invested over four years into this project and it’s great to see it come to fruition. It has achieved our initial goals of delivering top speeds in excess of 40 mph and capable of up to four hours of continuous wakeboarding activity.”

In order to attain that level of performance, the 232SE uses a liquid-cooled electric motor with 200 Kw peak power equivalent to 268 horsepower driving a MerCruiser Bravo III sterndrive (twin counter-rotating propellers). It also takes 27 lithium ion batteries to do the job.

“The batteries account for the majority of the total boat weight (5,800 pounds),” said Smith. “We also resin infuse all our hulls which makes them lighter than a standard lamination lay-up. Reducing weight and advancing battery technology are keys to the future of bringing electric powered boating into the mainstream.”

At this time, a 232SE fully equipped will set you back about $175,000. Smith is quick to point out, however, that as production levels increase and battery costs come down, he sees a time when like-sized electric and gasoline models are comparably priced.

Larry Smith of Team Scarab has been aboard the electric boat bandwagon for over a decade. “I’m convinced that this is the next significant trend in recreational boating,” comments Smith, a former offshore racing champion. “My approach is a little different. I see an exciting opportunity for smaller [under 20’] family-styled sportboats that are affordable, have a range of at least 50 miles and will plane at speeds in excess of 30 mph. I’ve been working closely with Torqeedo to achieve those goals and I believe it’s well within the realm of possibility to make that happen with a 48 volt Torqeedo outboard using only 8 batteries. If we’re successful in developing a complete package in the $30,000 price range, electric boating will be on its way.”

The Electric Nautique’s electric engine was built by Montreal-based LTS Marine.

About to enter its second phase of prototyping is Pure Watercraft. The initial test hull which is a converted 21’ Cobalt runabout is about to be replaced by a hull of their own design and manufacture says company president Andy Rebele. Pure Watercraft is taking its own unique spin on the technology by mounting the electric motor ‘outboard’ of the hull, on top of the sterndrive. The power source is approximately 2,000 pounds of lithium ion batteries which have netted an impressive 46 mph top speed with a one-hour operating range and a relatively quick 4.5 hours to recharge from empty to full.

“Our mission as a company is to find ways to improve range, allowing owners more time to be on-the-water,” commented Rebele. “And that will come as battery technology advances. We’re focused on the higher-end, luxury demographic of the market. In the foreseeable future, the price structure of our boats will be about double the cost of a similar sized gasoline powered boat.”

The most recognizable name within this gas-less market segment is that of Correct Craft/Ski Nautique. The 100 percent Electric Nautique prototype debuted about 18 months ago. It too is now into a second phase of development with encouraging results. LTS Marine, a division of a Montreal-based electric motor manufacturing company for automobiles is collaborating with Correct Craft on the project.

As fuel prices creep upward, the lure of electric boats becomes stronger. The thought of never having to stop at a fuel dock unless it’s to purchase something inside the convenience store is pretty attractive, and so is the environmental-friendly, quieter operation and far less maintenance spin as well – all great selling points. The true test will come, however, when Joe-boater takes a peek at the sticker price.

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Bob Brown has been  a performance boating journalist and photographer for 39 years. He is the former executive editor of Powerboat Magazine and senior contributing editor for Hot Boat Magazine. He’s test driven and reported on more than 2000 different boats and is a former offshore, drag, marathon, and water ski race driver. Currently, he’s the president and founder of Media Direction, a full service advertising and public relations company specializing in the recreational boating industry.