LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. — Who says it’s only cars that are going to be electric powered? Access to today’s highly efficient lithium-ion batteries means that a number of companies (including GE and Boeing) are avidly working on electric and hybrid airplanes. And that same factor explains the sudden interest in electric boats. One of the biggest and oldest names in the field, Elco (which provided electric boats for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893), is now back in action.
The 1941 Cruisette now has Elco hybrid power. (Photos above and below: Jim Motavalli)
My family and I are cruising the crystal-clear waters of the 32-mile-long Lake George with wooden boat expert Nick Lamando piloting a 1941 Cruisette built in Bayonne, New Jersey. The boat was originally powered by a Chrysler V-8. But under the hood now is a hybrid drivetrain consisting of an Elco EP-7000 electric motor (a good replacement for a 70-horsepower gas motor), a 30- to 40-kilowatt-hour AGM lead-acid battery pack, and a diesel Fischer Panda marine generator to extend the range (it’s not connected to the propeller). Yes, that's kind of similar to the set-up in the Chevrolet Volt.
Showing what a hybrid drivetrain is capable of, the Cruisette travels the length of the lake and back on battery power alone (65 miles), but with the generator engaged, it’s good for 465 miles. Operating costs are likely to be 90 percent lower, depending on the system installed. How does seven cents a mile versus 59 cents sound? Elco is currently selling 100 to 200 electric powertrains annually.
Electric boats were launched around the same time as electric cars. Here's an Elco at the World's Fair in 1893.
The “Green Machine” Cruisette can sleep eight, but we’re just out for the day, enjoying the ride and also sampling a restored 31-foot Elco electric launch from 1899 — very similar to the boats provided for that long-ago World’s Fair (which had Thomas Edison's batteries). Still operating on its original motor (and with period gauges), the launch glided near-silently through the water near the home of Elco owner Stephen Lamando (Nick's brother), who acquired Elco in 2011.
The restored 1899 Elco, still with its original motor. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The vintage wooden Chris Crafts, Garwoods and Hacker-Crafts at Nick Lamando’s Hall’s Boat Corporation are very cool, and Joe Fleming, once Elco’s owner but now the company’s chief engineer, said that Elco’s drivetrains could power any one of them. The company no longer builds boats, but it has a large range of propulsion options for them, ranging down to five-horsepower outboards to 100-horsepower inboards (with generators optional).
A wooden Hacker-Craft at Hall's marina. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Elco has a colorful history, including building John F. Kennedy’s PT 109 (powered by three Packard V-12s). It was the second-largest yacht builder after Chris Craft until 1948. What became General Dynamics grew out of the Elco family of companies.
Fleming made some replicas of early Elco electric boats, but Lamando is concentrating on powertrains. “The opportunity to own Elco was intriguing,” said Lamando, whose background is as a very successful mortgage broker. “Joe had the vision — he’s the engineer, and I’m the enthusiast. Our primary customer base is the slower boats, launches and trawlers. We’re selling to retirees and to boat builders that want something environmentally friendly. What the car companies are doing with electric vehicles paved the way.” And then there’s the fact that some lakes are banning noisy gas motors, and others are limiting them to five horsepower.
All aboard the Green Machine. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Elco has repowered a 1928 Erie Canal tugboat (with state funding), a 66-foot Canadian steamer, and provided auxiliary motors for innumerable sailboats.
This five-horsepower electric outboard is powering a pontoon boat. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
In 10 feet of water on Lake George, I could clearly see the bottom. The lake is a survivor, and with electric powertrains taking over from diesels and gas engines, it will definitely stay that way. Here's a look at our excursion in the 1899 electric launch. Sorry about the wind noise; just look at the pretty pictures:
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