Eco-Barca water taxi
This month the Duffy & Mangia Onda-built Eco-Barca water taxi entered service in Venice, Italy ferrying hotel guests to and from the city's train station. Its unique hull design prevents shore-eroding waves while its all-electric drive eliminates local water and air pollution.

An Electric Revolution Making Few Waves

An interview with Gary Crane, VP for Marketing and Sales, Duffy Electric Boats of California.

By Bill Moore

Over the last 50 years, the proliferation of gasoline and diesel-powered pleasure craft has created an environmental problem on many inland waterways, harbors and lakes around the world. Often powered by dirty, two-stroke engines that vent their exhausts either into the air or directly into the water, these boats ­ by the millions -- pose a significant pollution problem.

One company that began addressing this issue some thirty years ago is Southern California-based Duffy Electric Boats. Although the concept isn't a new one --submarines have been powered by electricity for nearly a century ­ the technology has only started to find its way into the recreational boating marketplace in the last few years.

Gary Crane, Duffy's vice president for marketing and sales, explained to EV World that the idea for the company originated when the founder, Marshal Duffield, realized that he could use the same electric drive components that powered his father's golf car to propel a small boat around Newport Harbor's placid inland ways. If the batteries in a golf cart could provide enough energy for a day's worth of golfing, he reasoned, maybe they could also provide a day's worth of pleasure boating on waters where the speed was restricted to 5 knots per hour. Crane observed that Newport Harbor ­ as well as nearby Huntington Beach harbor ­ are ideal cruising areas for electric boats because no boat can go faster than 5 knots.

While Duffy remains a small niche boat manufacturer, it has enjoyed steady growth over the last 30 years, Crane said. There are over a 1,000 Duffy Electric Boats on Newport and Huntington Beach waterways and more than 5,000 Duffy Boats worldwide, one of the most recent being the Eco-Barca designed by Mangia Onda and built by Duffy for water taxi service in Venice, Italy. But more on this potentially revolutionary watercraft later.

The company has three locations, its manufacturing facility in the high desert above Los Angeles, its headquarters in Newport Beach and a sales and rental showroom on Huntington Beach. Duffy employs about 110 people in a vertically integrated business that includes everything from designing and manufacturing their own hulls to hourly boat rentals. "We've really vertically integrated the whole company to build everything," Crane stated. Because the company is privately held, Duffy does not release its sales figures to the public, but Crane did say that its market is growing, albeit at a leisurely pace, much like that of its boats.

Over the years, the company has found that its best markets are residential inland waterways where homeowners have private docks. Typically, boat speeds are kept low to prevent shore erosion and to reduce the risk of collisions on the often narrow, crowded waterways. Another new market that is developing is the fifty acre and larger man-made lake communities where gasoline powered boats are not allowed.

The company builds two basic hull types: a pontoon hull and a displacement hull. Both are ideally suited for electric motor drives because their hull designs. Even with a high-powered gasoline inboard or outboard, these hulls won't go faster than their mathematical hull speed. Whereas the typical planing hull found on high-speed V-hull watercraft used for sport fishing or water skiing can be forced up out of the water by its powerful gasoline engine, displacement hulls cannot. So, it makes little difference how big and powerful the engine is; the laws of nautical design won't let it exceed the speed of its hull.

Crane pointed out that both hull designs are also ideally suited for carrying the boat's heavy batteries, often installed under the seats. The company has traditionally used Trojan 6-volt deep cycle batteries that require monthly "watering". Access is easy by just lifting seat cushion hatches. The company is beginning to also install sealed, maintenance-free, AGM or glass mat batteries in some of its higher-end boats.

Can Water and Electricity Be Safely Mixed?

It seems counter-intuitive that a craft that spends all its time in the water would be powered by

electricity. Isn't there a significant chance of electrical shock? Crane explained that while there are some public misconceptions about the safety of electricity when used in a boating environment, all Duffy boats use low voltage systems ­ 12 volts for lights, horns and other accessories, 36 or 48 volts for the propulsion system. He added that all Duffy boats meet ABYC -- American Boat and Yacht Council ­ standards. "We are no different that a typical golf cart," he said, "It's the same type of voltage running along a metal golf cart on wet grass, or what-have-you. We're very attuned to safety and in our thirty years, it's never become an issue."

All Duffy electric boats include automatic battery chargers that run off of standard 110 volt "household current." The chargers are installed onboard the craft. According to Crane, a boat can be completely recharged overnight and provide a full day's worth of cruising -- up to 10 hours -- on a single charge. Owners simply plug in the charger when they dock in the evening. They never have to deal with fuel spills or messy oil changes. He added that in the 15 years that he's been associated with Duffy, no one has every come to him and said the boat didn't have enough power to meet their cruising needs, which usually include two to three hour cruises with friends or trips to waterside restaurants.

Duffy 21 Classic The company manufactures boats ranging from 16 to 30 feet in length with the most popular being the 21-feet model, which can comfortably seat 10 passengers. All hulls are made of fiberglass and formed at Duffy's California desert facility north of Los Angeles.

"All of our boats have a nice cabin enclosure... all the windows open and close. They're great for all types of weather cruising," Crane said.

Using Rentals to Create a Market

In a world grown accustomed to powering virtually all our forms of conveyance with fossil fuels, an electric boat might not seem like a very practical option. So, to help change that perception, Duffy started renting its boats four years ago at three southern California locations. The rate is $60/hour and it is proving to be a great way to demonstrate just how practical and fun an electric boat can be.

"It has proven to be a very strong part of our business plan," Crane told EV World's editor. "It gets more people into the boats." He went on to explain that within a minute the typical renter is comfortable with operating the boat. "As a result, it's become very popular." He said that while many renters aren't in the market to buy a Duffy boat, they are willing to rent (hire) them for special occasions such as birthdays and holidays.

"We call it a lifestyle boat and it really is. It's proven to be a big growth factor in the company, the rentals, and that also plays into the hand of helping sell a lot of people interested in possibly buying a Duffy." Crane added that some customers will rent the boat to try it out so they don't have to deal with the salesman. Because of the success of the rental program, Duffy plans to expand it.

"We stick with the markets that are conducive to electric boating. We're not going out in the Atlantic Ocean or the center of Lake Michigan. We're sticking to (the) places that are very, very welcoming to this type of boat."

Introduces First Hybrid-electric Model

While the bulk of Duffy boats are battery electric, last year the company introduced its first "hybrid-electric" boat, the 30 ft Duffy/Herreshoff, a classic turn-of-the-last-century motor launch. The Herreshoff 30 has an optional 5.5kW diesel generator that recharges the battery pack, giving the vessel a 75% increase in cruising range. "The boat's a real success and yes I think the hybrid concept is an important one in the marine industry."

Beside the hybrid drive, Crane said the company would also be interested in looking at fuel cells once the fueling infrastructure is in place. "We are definitely trying to maintain contact with a couple of the key players in that industry."

Changing Demographics

Crane said that as late as the 1980's Duffy boats were considered only for "old people."

"You had to be done boating to get into an electric boat. In the last ten years, our demographics have changed to people that are social, certainly connected to the water whether they live on it or they live in a community where they have access to it. But they are seeing it as a very viable recreational vessel."

"You know they're done scaring themselves with speedboats or don't want to mess with rigging on a sailboat and the kids can't be involved in that. Here's a way to get on the water, connect with the water in a very social platform."

" Our age and demographics really span the globe now," Crane elaborated. Certainly 35 to 70 is the age demographics." He went on to explain that for some of their more "boaty" customers, a Duffy electric boat is their second boat, next to their yacht or large sailboat. More and more lakefront homeowners also are discovering the benefits of electric boating, Crane observed. "The wives say, Wow, I can use it! I don't have to have my husband involved."

Price Comparisons

"Our boat would be considered a premium price," Crane said, adding that large manufacturers like Sea Ray and Bayliner can produce comparably-sized, gasoline powered boats for less. However, he said you can also find them costing more depending on how they are configured and outfitted.

Duffy electric boats run the price range from $17,000 up to $150,000 depending on the model and options selected.

So, when given a choice between a powerful speedboat that can churn the water at 40 mph and a far more sedate Duffy at 5 knots, why would the person choose the electric boat? Crane replied that for the people who live in these waterfront communities and are considering their options, they realize that the speed of the powerboat is useless in their setting. For them, the electric boat makes much more sense. In Crane's words, they realize they don't need to put up with the noise or the fumes that are part of the powerboat experience. Maintenance on the electric drive system consists of periodically watering the batteries and cleaning the bottom of the boat, significantly less than a gasoline-engine pleasure craft.

"I won't say they are zero maintenance but of all the boats on the market, they are the lowest."

The Wave Eaters

For the last year, Duffy has been involved in the construction of the Eco-Barca, a unique, one-of-a-kind water taxi that just two weeks before our interview was placed into revenue service on the waterways of Venice, Italy.

The brainchild of Bill Burns and Chuck Robinson, two San Diego nautical architects, the Eco-Barca's patented "M-hull" design produces no wake. They formed a company called Mangia Onda or Wave Eater in Italian, to build and sell their unique design.

Over the decades, boat wakes have caused serious structural damage to buildings in Venice, literally undermining the centuries-old city in the last 100 years since the advent of high speed hulls. Air and water pollution are also significant problems for residents and tourists. The 19-foot Eco-Barca water taxi uses a Duffy electric drive system. Duffy also built the boat from Burns and Robinson's plans.

"It's designed to carry ten passengers," Crane said. "It took about a year of design and production. We just shipped it two weeks ago, in early March." According to Crane, the boat is getting "wonderful reviews" since going into service. "It's been commissioned directly to one of the hotels that wants to carry their guests from the railway station to their hotel."

"It's a very interesting story," Crane continued. "It's a way to solve a lot of problems this Renaissance city has." He also mentioned that the Mangia Onda company is developing a 65 foot, diesel-powered version of their hull for deeper water, higher speed operation.

Both Mangia Onda and Duffy are looking for additional sensitive waterways where boats like the Eco-Barca make sense.

However, like any small, regional company, getting out the word about electric boats is a continual effort, Crane admitted. While it excels at what it does where it does it, electric boats, like electric cars, have their limitations, something that Duffy Boats clearly recognizes. "Ultimately, the magic is getting somebody in the Duffy Boat and once you get them in there, there is product you can get them to look at. We know the magic where it works."

Times Article Viewed: 9172
Published: 17-Mar-2001


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