Sunday, April 20, 2014
BOOTHBAY HARBOR — The throaty diesel rumble, the petroleum smell and wisp of smoke -- none of it was present when Eugene Story started the engine on the 23-foot lobster boat docked at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in mid-July. Instead, air bubbles in the water from the propeller were the only indication that the vessel was under way.
Eugene Story, left, and Eric Graves aboard their electric lobster boat July 8 in Boothbay Harbor.
Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
Eugene Story, owner of Maine Electric Boat Co., right, and Eric Graves, president of Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, leave the dock on their electric-powered lobster boat July 8 in Boothbay Harbor. Next month, they will install an 8-kilowatt, direct-current diesel generator.
Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
The boat's name on the transom – Electra, trailed by a thunderbolt – offered an explanation. Story was piloting an electric lobster boat.
Electra is a prototype for what its developers hope will be a quieter, cleaner and more energy-efficient vessel that could be built here at the shipyard. By next month, the boat will be outfitted with a small diesel generator. That will turn Electra into a diesel-electric hybrid, potentially appealing to boaters looking for a lobster boat-style pleasure craft with greater cruising range. It then will be set for sea trials and potential customers.
Once a rare sight on American roads, hybrid cars, and more recently, electric cars, are becoming common, as the technology improves and motorists become more comfortable with the concept. Boating is about 10 years behind automobiles, but high and volatile fuel prices have set it on a similar course. Story and his partners hope Maine can tap into its boat-building heritage to be a player in this evolving trend.
Story has been promoting battery-powered vessels through his Maine Electric Boat Co. and Elco Motor Yachts of Athens, N.Y., which began developing electric boats more than a century ago and has a line of propulsion systems. Two years ago, he formed a partnership with Eric Graves, president of the Boothbay shipyard, to explore electric engines for the traditional Maine lobster boat.
Story chose the lobster boat because of its classic, seaworthy hull design. Today's lobster boats have grown larger and more fuel-thirsty, to fish farther offshore. But older designs meant to be powered with a small engine at modest speeds are still around, and the men found what they were looking for when they discovered a 23-foot boat built in East Boothbay in the late 1960s. It had been stored in a barn for 30 years.
"We wanted to build a prototype, but not a big, expensive prototype," said Story, a retired naval architect who splits his time between Portland and Southport.
Graves rebuilt the boat while Story installed an Elco electric motor. It has a diesel equivalent of 20 horsepower. The total cost of the propulsion system is less than $7,000.
The motor will push Electra through the water at a maxium speed of 6.5 knots, roughly 7.5 miles per hour. Power comes from six batteries seated under the gunwales.
For mariners familiar with standard propulsion, Electra offers a different experience, as a quick spin around the harbor reveals. The most dramatic contrast is the lack of noise when making way and the instant throttle response of the electric motor.
At the helm, digital gauges indicate the engine RPM, amps and battery life. When Electra's cruising at 4 knots, the batteries can last up to eight hours. Push the throttle forward, however, and battery life falls off exponentially.
That's a problem for lobster fishing, the men soon realized. Lobster fishermen want to get out to their traps quickly and can be hauling all day. That would kill the battery.
One solution might be to install solar-electric panels. But Electra has a small roof and Story figured it would take two days to fully charge the cells.
That brought Story and Graves around to hybrid technology. Next month, they will install an 8-kilowatt, direct-current diesel generator. Connected to the motor, it will be able to run Electra at 6 knots. At slower speeds, it will charge the battery bank.
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