Messing About in Electric Boats

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I have been working on a Theory of Negative Compensations. The rough idea is that the smarter our machines get, the dumber our lives become. I'm not there yet, but the evidence is accumulating. You have probably noted as many examples of the phenomenon as I have.

It's a race against time: Will we be able to prove the theory, and do something about it, before we become too dumb to care?

The Case For Electric Boats
Pending final proof of the theory, I wanted to mention an anomaly — the Interesting Case of Electric Boats. Briefly, the career of electric boats may show — contrary to the Theory — that we were smart once, and could be smart again, if only in that obscure part of the brain that chooses how we get around on rivers and lakes on Sunday afternoons.

I had a ride on an electric boat the other day. We put out on the Hudson River just below Rhinecliff, to spend a quiet afternoon — a noiseless afternoon on windless water — sliding north under low clouds towards the Esopus lighthouse. On the west bank stood a Catholic monastery and on the east bank, Bob Guccione's mansion, so that you might say our course represented the Middle Way.

An electric boat — powered by large batteries arranged along the keel, below the flooring of the cockpit — proceeds by stealth. Leaving the marina at Norrie Point, we picked up a few weeds that wrapped themselves around the propeller and threw the rotation of the shaft off true, causing a slight vibration in the tiller. Otherwise, the boat was frictionless and silent — a dreamlike passage. A few sailboats were out, luffing around a course. Now and then, a powerboat would approach us on a snarling Doppler, would rooster noisily past, and recede.

We were doing six or seven knots. We could have gone faster, using up more battery power, though we could never have towed a guy on skis. The batteries on the 20-foot boat can run for about ten hours, and then need to be recharged, a process that takes several hours anyway; best to leave the boat plugged in overnight. I was surprised by the boat's power; on an earlier trip, we had encountered enormous wakes from the great tugs that push barges up the Hudson to Albany. Our boat powered serenely through.

A Short History of the Craft
Electric boats enjoyed a vogue in the eighteen nineties and just after the turn of the century. The Electric Launch Co. (Elco) was founded in 1892, and built a clientele both fancy and democratic. Elegant battery-powered Elco boats, built in Bayonne City, New Jersey, were owned by Astors, Vanderbilts, and Czar Nicholas II. They were magnificent things, gleaming with mahogany and brass. But the prices were not plutocratic. In 1902, you could get a 16-foot Elco for $540.

Electric boats flourished, but lost out eventually to boats powered by what were first called "explosive engines." They changed the name to "gasoline engines," which sounded more, well, refined. And that technology won.

Elco also did gasoline motors, and eventually, during World War II, made PT boats, including John Kennedy's PT-109. The company went out of business after the war, was revived in 1988, and a few years ago was bought by Chuck Houghton, who now turns out electric boats (old design, new battery technology) in a small factory in Highland, New York, across the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie.

It was Chuck Houghton who took me out the other day. A couple of years ago, I went through his factory and drooled a bit over the sleek Edwardian numbers, which have fiberglass hulls but are fitted out with the varnish and brass of the loveliest wooden boats. The boat we had on the river the other day was Elco's cheapest picnic model (well, cheap is relative, it costs $30,000 — think of it as a stripped-down SUV), but I drooled over that one as well — its elegance of design and motion through the water. More and more American lakes are banning two-stroke engines and trying to quiet themselves down, although the Theory of Negative Compensations is otherwise hard at work on the nation's waterways. Unless we are lobstermen or whalers, we set out in boats in order to refresh ourselves in another dimension. The charm of the electric boat is that it allows us to navigate in the silence that is the medium of fish moving through water.