Speedboats have the kick of an amusement park—spray in the face, a noisy, bucking rush across the water. I prefer boating at the other extreme, in a kayak or canoe. I like the intimacy with the water—the elegant silence.
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I also like the physical work of paddling—a vaguely neurotic Calvinist’s itch, perhaps, to earn my pleasures. But if I am feeling lazy, I call up Charles Houghton and see if he is in the mood for a spin on the Hudson in one of his electric boats.
Houghton, 58, runs Elco, the Electric Launch Company. If he has half an afternoon to spare, I meet him at his factory in Athens, New York, on the west bank of the river, 30 miles south of Albany, and we glide noiselessly off in one of his 19-footers, making five or six knots. We watch for the pair of bald eagles that have lately come to nest in a tall dead oak. On the high rise of the east bank to our left lies Olana, artist Frederic Church’s Moorish-style manor house, from which he painted the grand view to the southwest, with the Catskills shouldering up in hazy blue-gray profile against the afternoon sun. This is the Hudson River School of boating; we slide back into the 19th century.
Houghton cedes the tiller to me. The throttle is a four-inch lever under my right hand, as simple as a thermostat dial—clockwise forward, counterclockwise back; more turn gives more power. The electric motor, powered by six 160-pound 4D batteries laid along the keel (the weight makes for a very stable ride), emits no more noise than a contented refrigerator. Less. Now and then one of the super tugs out of New York City plows past on its way to Albany; our electric engine muscles through the big wake without a hint of laboring.
The boat is a sleek, neo-Edwardian piece of work, built to the designs that Elco, the first electric boat builder in America, used when it was founded 110 years ago. The company supplied 55 launches for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, ferrying thousands of sightseers on the fair’s waterways. People such as Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie and the grand duke Alexander of Russia bought electric launches. But in time, entrepreneurs of "explosive motors," as internal combustion engines were called, had the wit to change "explosive" to the less alarming word "gasoline," which calmed people who had previously refused to ride in automobiles, and the technology of boats roared off in that direction. Elco itself converted to producing gasoline engines, and eventually, during World War II, built 399 PT boats, including John F. Kennedy’s PT-109.
Growing up, Houghton spent his summers on Lake George in upstate New York. There, his great-grandfather, W. K. Bixby of St. Louis, the founder of American Car and Foundry, which once made nearly every railroad car in America, kept a 36-foot Elco boat he bought for $1,736 at the Chicago exposition. "It’s still used every day all summer long," says Houghton, who proposed to his wife on it and gave her an electric 24-footer for a wedding present in 1989.
That kind of inspiration led to his interest in the company, which was trying to make a comeback in 1987 after closing in 1949. In 1995, Houghton, who had served as an administrative assistant to Congressman James Symington of Missouri and as executive director of the St. Louis transportation system, and William Forster, a New York banker and a trustee of Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, bought and reorganized Elco. Eventually they set up a factory at the site of an old Dutch boatyard in Athens, started in 1705 to make barges for the river trade. Houghton, by then divorced, moved into the old house of a whaling captain that overlooks the river, just across the road from the factory, where he spends most of his time at a business that is vigorous but still struggling.
For Houghton, a 6-foot-3 genial man with a bardic gift for telling American stories, making electric boats is what the Buddhists call "right livelihood." "It’s when everything you have done in your life, every experience and every job comes together and propels you along," he explains. "You are running down the river, not fighting upstream."
The charms of electric boats are environmental as well as aesthetic. They eliminate the noise pollution that conventional powerboats make and the loathsome discharges of oil that foul American rivers and lakes, threatening fish and bird life. Some lakes—notably Lake Tahoe in California—have banned two-stroke engines, the most polluting type. One of the reasons Houghton embarked on his adventure with electric boats was his dismay over the decline of New York’s Lake George. "There are just too many boats on the water," he says. "One third of the oil and gas that goes into the front end comes out the back as pure pollution."
Even so, Houghton is quick to point out that "people buy them mainly because of the quiet....They have a magic." Not long ago, Houghton sold a boat to Prospect Park Audubon Center in Brooklyn, New York, for use on the park’s 60-acre lake. The boat, a 30-footer, often takes schoolchildren around the lake on outings. The kids are boisterous, noisy, keyed up, used to the headlong clatter of subways; when they take their places in the boat and it slides out noiselessly onto the lake, they suddenly fall silent, as if they have just discovered a new dimension of the universe.
"People don’t have to yell to be heard," says Pierre Vautravers, the captain of the Brooklyn boat, "and it’s wonderful for sneaking up on birds."
The electric boat business is burgeoning now, with more than 60 companies turning out models. The early 21st-century resembles the start-up of the auto industry, with scores of small independents exploring the new market and struggling to get up to cruising speed. Made to order, Elco boats often feature elaborate brass fittings, varnished mahogany decks and oak covering boards. Houghton takes digital photographs of a boat in progress and e-mails them to customers so they can make design changes during the construction. The average boat sells for $40,000 to $60,000 and the most popular extra is a striped picnic canopy, a nice fin de siècle touch that creates the effect of a waterborne surrey with fringe on top.
Houghton predicts that electric boats will become much cheaper with mass production. "It’s just what happened to Henry Ford’s first cars a hundred years ago," he says.
The boats’ batteries hold a charge for eight to ten hours, or about 70 miles. Recharging generally involves simply plugging in a power cord, usually overnight, at a marina.
One of the advantages of electric boats is that they require almost no maintenance—forget the annual winterizing that gas boats in cold climates demand—just a new coat of varnish from time to time on the deck work and some shining of brass.
The limitations are obvious. No bow waves or rooster tails. You cannot pull a water-skier or raise hell at 50 miles per hour. I say hurrah for that.
What I like about them is that, being inaudible, they make you feel invisible on the water. There’s a lovely transparency to the day. An afternoon on the Hudson restores my sense of what the Water Rat meant when he told the Mole in The Wind in the Willows: "There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."