Surging Ahead

With improvements in battery output and capacity, the market for electric boats and propulsion is growing
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At opposite ends of the power spectrum are Torqeedo’s 100-kW inboard

At opposite ends of the power spectrum are Torqeedo’s 100-kW inboard

Andy Rebele grew up bass fishing and then spent his college years rowing for the Boston University crew team. After a career in Silicon Valley, he retired to Seattle and bought a waterfront home, hoping to get back on the water.

Rebele owned a 21-foot runabout with a gas sterndrive that wouldn’t start on some days or smelled of fuel, prompting guests to inquire about their safety. He decided that a boat with electric propulsion would be better: quiet when he wanted to fish and never smelling of gasoline.

Rebele started by converting his sterndrive runabout to electric power, thinking there would be a market for such a boat. “Only after we got irretrievably involved in the project did we realize that converting sterndrives to electric didn’t make economic sense,” he says.

In 2011, he built his own electric outboard at a company he founded, Pure Watercraft. He’d used gas outboards daily while coaching college crew teams and decided to build his own electric model. Pure Watercraft recently started shipping its 25-kW outboard to beta customers.

Pure’s arrival in the marketplace is right on schedule. If the talk and products on the docks of the Cannes Yachting Festival this past September are any indication, electric propulsion is about to become mainstream in the marine industry.

Volvo Penta and Fountaine Pajot demonstrated a prototype sailing catamaran with electric propulsion. Correct Craft subsidiary Watershed Innovation has developed its own battery system to power an electric boat. Torqeedo announced higher power ratings for its largest electric motors, plus new direct-drive smaller versions and increased battery power. Taiga Motors has an electric personal watercraft that can hit 75 mph.

Driving Acceptance

Capt. Todd Sims, director of project sales for Torqeedo, says the trends that consumers have been embracing on land are finally making their way to the water, where manufacturers aren’t so much competing to dominate the electric-propulsion space as they are looking to make it a reality with a solid foundation for the future.

“Everybody knows someone who at least drives a hybrid car, and that is driving acceptance, which will ultimately drive adoption,” he says. “It’s not necessarily getting a bigger slice; it’s making the whole pie larger. The whole market can expand, and there’s plenty of room for everybody.”

Volvo Penta’s prototype 15-kW Saildrive.

Volvo Penta’s prototype 15-kW Saildrive.

Because of his fishing background, Rebele targeted bass anglers who compete in tournaments exclusively for electric boats. The competitors use boats that are custom-built for electric power and typically run about 9 or 10 mph.

One of Rebele’s earliest customers recently took delivery of the Pure Watercraft motor and battery pack. The boat ran 24 mph and pulled away from the competition at the start.

“He completed his fishing before anyone else arrived,” Rebele says. “For electric-only tournaments, we’re the dominant choice because it’s less expensive than the 9-mph outboards they’re using.”

While many of the boats competing in electric-only tournaments are custom, Rebele and his team designed Pure Watercraft battery packs to fit in the gas tank compartment of a Tracker Pro 170. The cost breakdown is $6,000 for the motor, $8,500 for the battery pack and $2,000 for the charging system. (Warranty information was unavailable.)

Pure Watercraft employs a team of 25 mechanical, systems and control, and propeller engineers, plus other specialists. The company developed its own electric motor, battery pack and management system. Panasonic supplies the battery cells, but Rebele’s engineers — whom he hired away from Tesla — design the battery packs, which he says are thermally managed to prevent overheating. The Pure pack creates 180 watt hours per kilogram, compared to the 166 watt hours generated by the pack for the Tesla Model 3 electric car. The company also makes its own aluminum three-blade propellers.

The system is controlled by a fly-by-wire shift and throttle, and there’s an integrated color display at the helm that monitors the power and system health.

When it comes to battery power and output, Rebele says, “we have to be realistic with what we tell people we can do.” For instance, if an angler wanted to fish in a tournament on a huge lake that requires hours and hours of range to cover, Rebele would steer him away from his product.

However, in addition to bass boats, Pure Watercraft is looking at the pontoon-boat market. “Our analysis comes from looking at a person’s real reason for getting out on the water,” he says. “They want to putt-putt around and have wine and cheese with their friends.”

A Watershed Moment

A year ago, the team at Watershed Innovation, a subsidiary of Correct Craft, started working on an electric towboat. The division that focuses on electric propulsion, originally started by a Nautique dealer in Austria, is called Ingenity. After moving R&D to Orlando, Ingenity engineers developed their own battery pack and electric propulsion system for a Super Air Nautique GS20 and a Nautique 210.

The company’s goal for the new electric system is framed around its 3-1-3 initiative — three hours running, one hour of charge time and three more hours running — so an owner can use the boat twice a day. “We’re getting close to three hours running, but the one hour recharge is challenging,” says Sean Marrero, chief strategy officer at Correct Craft and president of Watershed Innovation.

Pure Watercraft designed the battery pack for its electric outboard to fit in the fuel tank compartment of a Tracker Pro 170.

Pure Watercraft designed the battery pack for its electric outboard to fit in the fuel tank compartment of a Tracker Pro 170.

As with most electrical systems, the biggest challenge is the battery pack, which is rated at 124 kWh. The engineers worked hard to develop a new system and recently took delivery of a customized battery with one third more charging capacity than the previous battery. “It’s the most energy-dense marine battery that we’re aware of,” Marrero says. “It also fits into the space where a traditional inboard or sterndrive is placed.”

Because of the high temperatures that can be generated during use in the warmer waters of the Southeast, the engineers also designed a sophisticated liquid-cooling system into the pack.

Last summer, a customer used a Nautique GS22 with the Ingenity electric system on Lake Tahoe, putting the boat through long-term, real-world testing that Marrero says went well. Eventually, the company hopes to sell the battery and propulsion system to other builders.

The Quiet Cat

When Fountaine Pajot’s Lucia 40 catamaran pulled away from the docks at the Cannes Yachting Festival, its propulsion system created no sound. That system was two prototype Volvo Penta electric motors mounted atop the engine company’s Saildrive units.

The catamaran can run for an hour at its top speed of 8 knots, three hours and 17 nautical miles at 6 knots, and five hours and 27 nautical miles at 5 knots, says Anna Lindgren, director of product management, marine leisure at Volvo Penta. For additional range, 7.2-kW gensets can be used for backup charging.

At the 2018 Cannes show, Volvo Penta management decided to move forward with an electric propulsion project. Fountaine Pajot agreed to partner. The Volvo Penta electric motors are adapted from the company’s 48-volt platform for construction equipment. They’re rated at 15 kW each, and the Saildrives required minimal modification to work with electric power. The battery packs are installed directly forward of the motors in the Lucia 40’s hulls. “They didn’t have to do any major alterations to the boat,” Lindgren says.

Lindgren adds that the project was about more than just creating an electric boat. “We’re looking at the complete boat, so we’re running A/C and refrigerators and those types of loads on the battery packs.”

Volvo Penta says the air conditioning can be run continuously for 12 hours with power from the batteries. To keep the batteries cool, the system has raw-water heat exchangers. There are two 5-kW chargers, and charging time is three hours.

The batteries are rated at 20 kWh, which Lindgren says fits well with the concept. “That’s the logic of starting out in a sailboat application,” she says, “because the amount of battery power you need isn’t that large, and it’s the most expensive component of the system.”

Volvo Penta also developed an updated version of its Electronic Vessel Control system, including a Glass Cockpit screen, to monitor the health of the propulsion and on-board systems, including the batteries.

Pure Watercraft developed its own battery pack.

Pure Watercraft developed its own battery pack.

At the other end of the performance spectrum, Montreal-based Taiga Motors introduced an electric personal watercraft called the Orca. (The company also makes electric snowmobiles.) After starting on the concept four years ago, Taiga hit the waters with the first Orca last summer.

The Orca has a 134-kW motor that Taiga developed in-house. Taiga CEO Sam Bruneau says the motor is equal to about 180 hp and that the 580-pound Orca has the same power-to-weight ratio as a 300-hp Sea-Doo RXP-X 300. “It remains really agile because of the light weight,” Bruneau says.

The majority of the Orca is built in-house, and the hull bottom is an original design. Other manufacturers provide some components in the jet pump, and Taiga uses existing impellers. Bruneau estimates an average range of about two hours. “But we’ve had days where we got five hours,” he adds.

Like any player in electric propulsion, Bruneau says most of the engineering focus has been on the battery. Taiga purchases battery cells from a supplier and packs them into its own battery pack that is integrated into the hull to improve the center of gravity. It has a closed-loop cooling system for the power supply. The antifreeze-based system is the same one the company uses in its snowmobile.

One number that might cause a double-take is the Orca’s $24,000 retail price. Sea-Doo’s RXP-X 300 retails for $15,400. Eventually, Taiga wants to achieve cost parity with combustion-engine personal watercraft.

Bruneau says the Orca is ideal for use as a superyacht toy because there’s no need to carry gasoline. He also says the company’s customer is typically someone who doesn’t currently ride watercraft, “especially waterfront property owners who don’t want the noisy aspect of traditional PWC.”

Reaction from people living on electric-only waters has been mixed. Most of the electric-only rules are aimed at keeping boat speeds low. “We’ve had some lakes where they’re fine with it, but some lakes want to restrict any kind of wake or top speed,” Bruneau says.

Taiga employs 20 people in its 25,000-square-foot facility. Bruneau says the company wants to develop electric inboard propulsion that could be a direct replacement for a gas engine in a repower application.

Torqeedo uses marinized BMW batteries (BMW i3 shown) for its Deep Blue inboards.

Torqeedo uses marinized BMW batteries (BMW i3 shown) for its Deep Blue inboards.

Steady Progress

Long considered the leader in electric marine propulsion, Germany’s Torqeedo recently expanded its product range. On the high-output side, the company went from 50 kW to 100 kW for its Deep Blue inboards. “It’s not only doubling the power, we’re simplifying the drivetrain,” says Sims, the director of project sales.

The company was able to make the jump to 100 kW thanks to a direct drive with a 1-to-1 gear ratio. There are fewer points of failure because the reduction gears that were used in the 50-kW model were eliminated. On the 100-kW model, it’s basically two bearings and a motor. Torqeedo offers the new motor in low- and high-rpm versions. The low-rpm unit maxes out at 900 rpm to the prop shaft and is for large, heavy-displacement vessels; the higher rpm is targeted at lighter planing boats.

To support the increase from 50 to 100 kW, Torqeedo boosted the capacity of the BMW i3 battery pack from 30.5 kWh to 40 kWh. The upgraded pack fits in the same physical dimensions, with a slight increase in weight. “With the builders we already worked with who designed in the battery two years ago, they can bolt in the new battery that has 33 percent more capacity,” Sims says.

The new battery pack sells for $34,999; the 30.5 kWh version is $31,999. “We’ve never met a customer who said, ‘You sold me too much battery,’ ” Sims says.

Canadian boatbuilder Templar Marine is a Torqeedo customer. Company founders Mark and Jennifer Fry were looking for an eco-friendly, year-round electric day cruiser with the amenities of a traditional contemporary powerboat. After seeing what was available, they set out to design their own. The Templar Cruiser C26 has a Torqeedo propulsion system that includes a Cruise 10.0 motor and a bank of six lithium-ion batteries.

Templar also builds water taxis rated for 12 passengers by the Canadian government, and Gray Line Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Tour in Victoria, British Columbia, recently placed an order for 12 boats that will serve double-duty as eco-friendly dinner cruisers. Next in line for Templar are a sedan version for longer-range cruising and a commercial light-cargo vessel. All will be built on the same 26-foot hull.

The C26 rides a semidisplacement hull that has a 9-foot, 6-inch beam. Templar says there is room for 15 guests on deck and below. There’s an enclosed forward cabin with 6-foot headroom, overnight accommodations in the bow, a private head with a sink and vanity, a refrigerator, central heating, a stereo with Bluetooth and plenty of USB ports. Thanks to the absence of a sterndrive engine and fuel tanks, the boat weighs about 5,000 pounds.

Another area where Sims says Torqeedo is getting more interest is foiling boats. “Foiling is such an important focus for electric propulsion because once you take flight, your power requirements for the speed go down,” he says.

All of this growth at Torqeedo, in addition to the entry of companies ranging from Pure Watercraft and Fountaine Pajot into the electric-motor market, will only be good for consumers going forward. As Sims says, it “legitimizes and expands” the market. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.

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