March 16, 2010

With hybrid, future is coming -- slowly


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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Wed., July 16, 2008. Chris Cutshall of South Port Marine in South Portland demonstrates a new 14 and a half foot hybrid runabout seen here running on its electric motor drives and controlled by a joy stick.

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Wed., July 16, 2008. Standard gas outboard is flanked by two electric drives on the new 14 and a half foot hybrid runabout made by Scout Boats and on display at South Port Marine in South Portland.

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Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Something seemed odd about the skiff making way along the docks at South Port Marine -- the outboard motor was tipped out of the water.

It caught Greg Thornton's eye. He was standing on the swim step of his 31-foot cabin cruiser, wondering what was propelling the little boat.

From his perch in power boating's present, Thornton was catching a glimpse of what might be its future.

The skiff is billed as the marine industry's first fiberglass hybrid boat. The 14-foot Scout 145 Hybrid, on loan as a demo this month at South Port Marine, is powered by a pair of stern-mounted, electric drives and three deep-cycle batteries. The boat is steered with a joystick at the helm.

A gasoline-powered, 20-horsepower outboard hangs from the transom, for those times when greater speed or range is desired.

South Port Marine has yet to sell any of the hybrid boats. They're a curiosity now, really. But boating could be on the verge of a sea change.

Power boating is being swamped this season by petroleum prices that have many owners thinking twice about casting off.

The owner of a modest-size cruiser can drop hundreds of dollars at the gas dock. That makes boaters such as Greg Thornton wonder when the technologies that are transforming automobiles will splash over into the realm of recreational boating.

Is the gas-electric Scout Boat hybrid an early, waterborne-version of the popular Toyota Prius?

''With the cost of fuel,'' Thornton said, ''for people who really love to boat, it's going to come to something like that.''

Maybe. But not yet.

Stroll the docks at any marina on Casco Bay, flip through the pages of boating magazines, and $4 a gallon gasoline seems not to matter. Horsepower rules. It's not unusual to see pleasure craft with two -- sometimes three -- beefy outboards strapped to the stern.

To make an analogy, the vessels are the SUVs of the water. And while the auto industry is feverishly retooling, most mass-production boat builders seem to be waiting for the storm to pass.

''The boating world has been building bigger, heavier boats,'' said Chris Cutshall, sales manager at South Port Marine. ''It's a disconnect.''

Cutshall's not sure how long the industry can thrive with its present product mix. He sells big boats for a living, and business, he said, has been good. But he can walk around the marina this summer and see people using their boats ''like cottages on the water.'' He wonders whether boaters will soon rebel, like car buyers, and just jettison everything that guzzles gas.

''We're at some sort of juncture,'' he said. ''Nobody's sure where it's going to go, but things have changed.''

That's why Cutshall was interested in bringing the Scout 145 Hybrid to Maine. The boat, which sells for roughly $12,000, was introduced last fall as a marketing tool for the South Carolina-based boat builder.

When gas prices spiked, boaters began taking a more serious look.

Electric boats aren't new. A few niche builders make them for speed-restricted harbors. And fishing boats rigged with battery-powered trolling motors float on most every lake.

The Scout 145 Hybrid is a new twist on these old concepts. It integrates a digitally controlled joystick with two stainless-steel drives. From the helm, it's easy to spin the boat in a circle by pushing the joystick.

A cruise control allows for hands-free operation, and a battery meter tells how much charge remains.

Three batteries will power the boat for four hours at full throttle -- eight hours at half throttle -- after an overnight charge from a standard extension cord.

Unlike an automobile hybrid, the Scout can't use regenerative braking to help charge the batteries. Running the gas-powered outboard does re-energize the battery bank.

The Scout 145 Hybrid's biggest drawback? It's slow. Top speed is around 8 mph. That's not fast enough to lift the boat's bow out of the water, to put it on plane. So the boat seems best suited for fishing or cruising on protected waters.

Boaters' reaction to the Scout hybrid is being watched by Nim Marsh, editor of Points East, a magazine that covers boating on the New England coast.

His first impression is that the craft is more of a prototype, too slow for broad appeal.

''Speed isn't just fun,'' he said, ''it's a safety factor, especially on the coast of Maine.''

Based in Rhode Island, Marsh notices motor boaters taking shorter trips this summer, anchoring for the day or just sitting on their boats at the marina. They're coping, he said. Many have yet to reconcile today's gas prices with the lifestyle of power boating.

''I think the American boating public is going to have to be pushed into something like this,'' he said.

But others, like Greg Thurston, may be more open to something different.

After watching the Scout 145 Hybrid maneuver around the marina, Thurston wanted to know why the boating industry isn't doing more to develop alternative engines. Hybrids, he said, could be the savior of motor boating.

It may be just a question of time.

In a recent press release, Scout Boats said it is developing a 16-foot version of its hybrid. That boat will have more powerful and efficient electric motors, with the goal of exceeding 10 mph.

This progress reminds Marsh of the evolution of the Toyota Prius, and offers some context. The initial car, which was spartan and cramped, was soon replaced by the model that has become so popular today.

''I think Scout is really a generation or two away from something that's really marketable,'' Marsh said. ''If they can get a boat that gets up on plane, that could change everything.''

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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Additional Photos

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Wed., July 16, 2008. A joystick instead of the traditional steering wheel is used to steer the new 14 and a half foot hybrid runabout made by Scout Boats as demonstrated at South Port Marine in South Portland today.


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