The Future Of Electric Boats

Published in the September 2008 Issue Published online: Sep 03, 2008
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Electric boats are becoming more popular, yet the market has not been touched and here's why.

In a 40-footer you'd be capable of nine miles per hour, for 12 hours. With a range of 108 miles, this boat would be more than adequate for cruising the Bahamas. Solar panels will increase range, and provide a degree of independence from shore charging facilities. If a 40-footer displaces eight tons, you would need only ten horsepower for cruising, but a total of 30hp for backup when the going gets rough. The science of electric boats has been around since the first decade of the 20th Century. That's when ELCO (Electric Launch Co.) of Bayonne, N.J., built electric launches that exceeded the performance of most electric boats of today. In my opinion 90 percent of today's electric powered boats are so inefficient they help limit the interest of the public in electric boats.

No water-skiing yet though, at least not until hydrogen fuel cells get off the ground. I understand the cells work fine, that all we're waiting for is the day we can pull into a marina and fill up with hydrogen. But, making hydrogen available at marinas may take 20 years. Fuel cells generate electricity on board rather than just storing it like batteries. Power goes up. Imagine 100 hp electric outboards.

Tomorrow's Outboard Today

Meanwhile batteries are good enough for efficient displacement boats so we don't have to wait for 20 years for hydrogen. Efficient displacement boats are like having batteries that are three times better. For example, look at the boats that the Ray electric outboard ends up on and compare them with the best displacement boats. The Ray and other electric outboards are found on aluminum pontoon boats, aluminum jons, deck boats and tour boats. All these boats, contrary to what you might think, perform about equally well with the Ray outboard. All are designed for planing, which requires more power than can be supplied electrically. Now if we compare the power required to propel these boats at below planing speeds, say four miles per hour, six and at top speed with a good displacement boat of approximately equal weight, we will discover that approximately one third of the power required to propel these boats propels the displacement boat at the same speed. The efficient boat will run three times longer with the Ray and the same battery pack than the inefficient boat, providing the same result as batteries with three times the energy. We're talking significance here.

Where the Market Is Today

The electric boat market is now estimated to be somewhere around 1 percent, about 90 percent of which goes to electric-only lakes. These are lakes sized from about 30 to 400 acres, which the developer, community, or some level of government has restricted to electric, sail or muscle power. Due primarily to relative small size, these lakes do not require boats designed for efficient displacement operation. Electric outboards on planing type boats are efficient enough for these waters.

Because it is an assured market, manufacturers have concentrated too much on the "cocktail circuit" as electric-only lake boating is sometimes called, and have been reluctant to invest in boats for "general waters" like large lakes, rivers, the Intracoastal and limited offshore waters, which can be navigated by efficient displacement boats. The electric-only lake market, perhaps 90 percent of the overall electric boat market, is too small, is shared by about 15 companies and grows at a snail's pace. Manufacturers have little control over the growth of the electric-only lake market, which depends on how fast new lakes are developed and how fast new homes are built on existing electric-only lakes.

Where the Market is Going

The electric boat market will be significantly expanded in reasonable time by the availability of efficient electric boats for general waters. These boats will be designed for cruising, all day fishing, rental and tour boats. Creative marketing based on known advantages, plus performance will sell people on general water electric boating. An estimated 10 percent of the pleasure boat market will be captured by electric boats. A collateral result will be more public access to government-controlled waters.

At Ray Electric Outboards we have been experimenting with boats for general waters for several years, including two prototypes, the 21-foot Explorer and the 26-foot Electrocat to demonstrate electric boat performance. Our goal has not only been product sales, but selling people on electric boating through information about general water electric boats and boating activities.

In 1995 my late wife and I took the Explorer on a 435-mile cruise from Fort Myers, Fla., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a delightful adventure, which demonstrated the feasibility of electric cruising and, to us, the fun.

We predict America is ready and is poised for quiet, nonpolluting, wakeless, economical, relaxing electric cruising. There is no better way to enjoy electric boating. You can listen to the view as it goes by. And unlike electric cars, the charging grid is ready. The electrical outlets for boats at marinas, which are normally included in your dockage fee, are completely adequate for charging propulsion batteries. Since at least 80 miles per day can typically be covered, marinas along most boating routes are adequately spaced. Although recharging requires overnight, you have overnight to recharge and your boat will always be ready to go when you are.

You cruise along at six to seven miles per hours at sailboat speed and you'll find sailors friendly because they know you won't rock them with a big wake. They will be happy to cruise along with you. Cruising at six miles per hour is delightful, you have time to smell the lilies, photograph at will and check all the markers. Plus no wake zones are not a problem.

If you are a pontoon boat builder interested in producing boats for electric outboards (which will be a first in the boating industry), call me at 800-259-1637. We can build efficient displacement pontoons for your standard boats, offer design assistance in other boats and marketing.

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