Electric Boats Are in Their Tesla-Startup Phase. Will They Ever Go Mainstream?
Tech execs and climate-conscious moguls are already buying e-towboats and yacht tenders, but where does it lead?
When Tesla started out, the company wasn’t designing brand-new vehicles from the ground up. Instead, it began with taking a chassis from an existing vehicle, modifying it, slotting in their proprietary electric technology and calling it the Roadster. It was a high-priced sports car, starting at $109,000, one that only climate-conscious celebrities like Matt Damon, tech CEOs and other wealthy buyers could afford. In other words, it wasn’t meant to be the car that solved climate change, but it was meant to show that a cleaner way of driving was possible.
Today, Nautique finds itself in a similar position to Tesla in 2008. The company’s Super Air Nautique GS22E is an industry first: an all-electric towboat that offers everything you could want for wakesurfing, wakeboarding and waterskiing, as well as all the benefits of electrification, from quiet operation to instant acceleration to the lack of emissions. It’s based on the brand’s gas-powered GS22, but has a price tag that’s more than double: about $300,000.
That’s not far from the cost of the Eelex 8000, which starts at $329,000 and is produced by X Shore, a Swedish electric boat manufacturer that made its U.S. debut at the end of March. As North American Sales Manager Patrick DeSocio tells InsideHook, these boats have the look and feel of a luxurious yacht tender, but can also be “a springboard for diving, kayaking, paddleboarding, cocktail cruising and commuting.” Founder Konrad Bergström has no qualms about saying he was inspired by Tesla.
Together, these two very real, very much on-sale vessels show the recreational boating industry is finally ready to take electrification seriously (and others are following closely in their wake, including a startup full of SpaceX alums). But by nature these types of boats — used for watersports, recreational fishing, pleasure cruising and otherwise taking to the lake for the weekend — are non-essential. So are they doomed to languish as a plaything of the rich and eco-conscious? Or can they actually make it into the mass market, have a considerable impact on the climate and environment, and offer a better boating experience for the average weekend warrior?
The Case for Buying an Electric Boat
On the environmental front, let’s acknowledge what everyone who has breathed in the noxious fumes on the back of a boat knows already: gas-powered boats are dirty, they pollute and they threaten the very ecosystems that boaters treasure so much. While their impact may seem negligible compared to the millions of cars sold every year in this country, the boating industry is growing, with the National Marine Manufacturers Association reporting that powerboat sales were up 13% year-over-year in 2020, which equates to “levels the recreational boating industry hasn’t seen since 2008.”
“I work a lot on air pollution in Los Angeles and it’s kind of sneaky how much air pollution comes from these boating activities,” Adrian Martinez, senior attorney for environmental group Earthjustice, tells InsideHook.
But switching to electric or other zero-emissions boats wouldn’t simply lead to less air pollution, which is being understood as a more urgent threat than previously acknowledged; Martinez also points out this transition would lead to a big drop in emissions (as many boats have inefficient engines, and many power grids are becoming less reliant on fossil fuels), less fuel leakage in waterways and a quieter, more peaceful boating experience, as electric engines produce less noise pollution than gas engines.
“If there’s a recreational alternative that’s clean, a zero-emissions boat, I think it’s a no-brainer in trying to implement all over the country,” he says, “but especially in places like Southern California which have high levels of pollution.”
From Luxury Plaything to Mainstream Pleasure Craft
Sean Marrero sees this implementation happening sooner rather than later. The chief strategy officer at Nautique’s parent company Correct Craft, a U.S. boat builder approaching its 100th anniversary, as well as the president of their “disruptive tech” arm Watershed Innovations and electric propulsion arm Ingenity Electric, Marrero sees electric boats as a natural follow-up to electric cars.
“Look at what is happening with the automotive EV segment, marine will follow behind that wave,” Marrero says. “The future looks bright and we are very well positioned to be a very large part of it.”
The keyword there is “positioned.” While the GS22E towboat is a compelling showcase of Correct Craft’s engineering prowess — up to three hours of activity on a single charge, DC fast-charging as quick as 1.5 hours to full, with touchscreen controls for dialing in your water sport of choice — it has yet to see its breakout moment. Although it was released last year, as of this July there are just “over 20 of them out in the field,” according to Todd Sims, Ingenity’s director of sales for the Americas, with buyers ranging from “early adopters” to “tech executives.”
In terms of the clientele, it’s same story at X Shore, where the people most likely to get in on the ground floor of the technology are those who are actively seeking out a zero-emissions option and don’t need to be convinced by a salesperson.
“The typical X Shore customer is familiar with the EV market and enjoys the efficiency and clean lines of our boats,” says DeSocio. “They are typically educated in the effects of boating on the environment, have families and have a passion for boating and protecting the environment.”
To get beyond that niche and become legitimate contenders among the other 99.9% of boat buyers, there are a few obstacles both companies are tackling. There’s the issue of range anxiety, which plagues the electric car market too; but Sims says that while Nautique “cannot satisfy 100% of potential use cases, [they] can satisfy about 90% of them,” it’s just about explaining the tech to customers. Then there’s the issue of charging, which can take a long time depending on the power options available at a dock or marina, though DeSocio says part of buying an Eelex 8000 is assistance from X Shore in optimizing the charging experience. Same goes for the GS22E.
“I’d like to note that once the charging solution is worked out our customers tell us that they love just simply plugging in as opposed to constantly having to tote multiple gas cans to/from the gas station to keep the boat fueled up,” says Sims.
While the hurdles these companies are facing are much the same, their goal posts are not. For Correct Craft, a legacy boat manufacturer, Marrero says staying relevant in a changing industry is key, and that his company must “keep innovating and delivering fresh products for [their] customers.” Over at X Shore, which was founded on the idea of electrification, DeSocio says the “main goal is to remain on the forefront of the electric boat market and to be the number-one electric boat company.”
As for what’s best for the planet — and the wakesurfers, fishermen and megayacht owners who inhabit it — Martinez, the Earthjustice attorney, says new boats are just one piece of the puzzle in solving the issue of old, polluting, fossil-fuel boats.
“It doesn’t address the fact that there’s nothing compelling people with existing boats — many of them that are really, really old — to replace them,” he says. “So that’s where you kind of need government policies and other ways to compel turning over those boats to cleaner models.”
That problem, however, is not as sexy as waiting to see who will be the aquatic Elon Musk.
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