Silent Cruising: Electric Watercraft

My brother-in-law Ted flew out from the east coast this past week with his family for a ski trip to Steamboat. Maggie went up for a couple of days to visit with them and came back with a boating magazine Ted had picked up on the plane.

Wouldnít you know, right there in the middle of all the ads for huge yachts and massive power boats was an article on, you guessed it, electric boats. Seems like everyone is getting into the act these days.

Weíre not talking little trolling motors here, either. These are good sized boats (up to 40 feet) that get their primary motive power from electricity. And they arenít just toys for putting around the harbor, a 40 foot electric cruising power boat called the Charger 40 has a range of 50 miles. This makes them ideal for day cruises where they can tie up at a marina at night for recharging. Even the giant luxury liner Queen Elizabeth 2 is really an electric boat, operated by a diesel/electric system.

The article, in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, lists a half dozen manufacturers of electric boats across the country producing displacement style boats with electric power plants. A displacement style boat is one, like a sailboat, that doesnít plane on the water like a ski boat or large power boat.

These boats are generally slow cruisers that operate at sailboat speeds without all the labor of sailing. This kind of boat hull can benefit from using the weight of batteries as ballast. Electric motors operate as great auxiliary power for large sailboats also.

Imagine how you could sneak up on the fish in 11 mile reservoir with a nearly silent electric boat or cruise coastal bays and inlets without scaring the wildlife. These boats also operate at much lower voltages than the current crop of electric automobiles. Generally, these boats operate in the 12 to 48 volt (DC) range whereas a typical electric vehicle can operates in the range of 96 to 144 volts (either AC or DC).

This makes the boats inherently safer because of the lower voltages. They are also extremely low maintenance. With a gasoline or diesel engine there is a lot of maintenance involving oils, greases, and other consumables to say nothing of lots of parts to wear out. An electric has essentially one moving part (the armature) and about the only things that will ever wear out are bearings and contacts. Thatís it.

Catastrophic failures for this kind of system are rare, which is very reassuring when you are out on the water. Plus, an added advantage of the lower voltages used in these boats is the ease of adding PV panels or a small wind generator to provide a charge to the batteries. With this kind of setup it would be difficult to get stranded without any power. A sunny or windy day would be all that is needed to recharge the batteries enough to get to safety.

On another East Coast note, my brother, who has the misfortune to live in Central Maine, has begun to wonder out loud about the advisability of adding a renewable energy backup to his old farmhouse. Itís amazing how those that have always taken the grid for granted are now getting real world lessons on its fragility.

First was the West Coast a couple of years ago with 2 huge power outages, neither of which "could ever happen", but did. Now the Northeast and Canada have been blasted back to the 19th century by Mother Nature and are getting a lesson in the price to be paid for being too dependent.

I have also "talked" online in the last week with a man in Canada who is about ready to strangle his solar powered neighbor who has the only home for miles with dependable power.

My brother stood in line for 5 hours to buy a generator and got it successfully hooked up to his home, after enduring a week without power. However I suspect he will quickly tire of the drone of the engine every time he needs to turn on a light.

Iíll make a bold (but very safe) prediction. This Spring will see a dramatic rise in renewable energy installations in the Northeast.

All Contents © 1998
Wagonmaker Press
Thomas W. Elliot


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