"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."