As the boating season ends, my dad and I trade memories of the season and of previous seasons out on the water. Some of my first memories take place at my paternal grandfather’s lake house in Northern Michigan. I learned to fish and swim off of my grandfather’s pontoon boat—a 1970s-era monstrosity in bright orange with astroturf carpeting and several haphazardly-bolted down lawn chairs. My memories of that boat include golden-tinted summer sun glinting off the water—and the pungent smell of gasoline fumes.
Pontoons are the slow-moving aquatic patios favored by middle-class Americans in places like Florida, Minnesota, and Michigan. They’re also the sector of the recreational boat industry that seems to be rebounding the quickest following the COVID sales slump experienced by many recreational vehicles. A 2021 Q4 study by Stratview Research forecasts a dramatic increase in the market within the next few years, from $2.28 billion in 2021 to $3.5 billion by 2025. Some of these boats sport engines big enough to tow water-skiers and tubers; others serve as mobile outdoor lounges, with sofa-like seating areas and, on the most luxurious models, wet bars complete with refrigerator and blender.
While flights—and lately private jets in particular—have received headline-level criticism in the climate crisis, there’s been little to no dialogue about how to address the emissions generated by these aquatic pleasure barges. Motorized watercraft top the carbon-footprint list of non-automobile recreational vehicles, consuming more gasoline than ATVs, snowmobiles, and dirt bikes combined—to the tune of 1.4 million gallons per year as of 2014. More than 11 million households registered their marine leisure vessels in 2018. A 747 can achieve 99 miles per gallon of fuel per passenger; the average pontoon boat can get anywhere between 1 and 10 miles out of a gallon of fuel for a boat that can probably carry about 12 people. If these boats do indeed produce significant emissions, why aren’t recreational watercraft a part of the climate conversation?
There have been examples of legislative measures to curb marine emissions, such as in California, where the Environmental Protection Agency largely places the burden of regulation on manufacturers. But just as with cars, many owners will run their watercraft for years with very little in the way of engine maintenance. Between that and the typical deterioration that comes with age, emissions may wind up higher than manufacturers intend or expect.
Given their tendency to return regularly to the same dock, motorized watercraft seem an obvious candidate for electrification, a process their land-bound automobile counterparts are undergoing at an increasing rate. However, while there are several electric car options on the market, most electric options for recreational watercraft remain either firmly in the prototype stage or expensively out of reach. Some of the hangups around the availability of options are technological; others more social.
One of the biggest challenges of engineering an electric boat is that the batteries necessary to power the engines are heavy and boats—especially boxy ones like pontoons—experience a lot of drag in the water. Whatever boat (or engine) that is developed needs to overcome that drag and provide the speed boat owners have come to expect, especially as many leisure boats have become faster and more powerful in recent years to facilitate watersports like wakeboarding and wakesurfing. General Motors’ recent prototype Pure Watercraft, created with Forward Marine, has an aerodynamic design above and below the waterline that is superior to the pontoon’s typically boxy silhouette. The Candela C-8 from a Swedish company uses a hydrofoil to cut through the water with greater ease. But it’s worth pointing out that none of these boats are particularly fast; while the Candela C-8’s sleek shape can reach 34 mph, many other pontoon models in development seem to be far behind at 20-21 mph. (That’s not quite fast enough to tow water-skiers; amateurs require about 22-25 mph, while pros do it at 35 mph.) And while many gas-powered pontoon boats do average between 18 and 25 mph for their leisurely cruises, lots of consumers in recent years have come to expect pontoons to be able to reach 30 to 40 mph.
Battery life for these boats tanks the closer the boat operates to top speed, sometimes lasting just an hour before needing to recharge, which can take several hours to achieve full battery power again. Anyone who’s ever had an engine quit on them in the middle of a big body of water can imagine the inconvenience, and even danger, inherent in these limitations. Developers promise innovation, and no doubt it will come, but will it happen quickly enough to lessen recreational boating’s impact on climate?
Briana Mohan, the marketing lead at Forward Marine, points out that batteries are the ultimate hurdle for would-be electric boat manufacturers. “Boat manufacturers don’t have the R&D budgets that [vehicle manufacturers] do,” she says, adding that General Motors had spent nearly $8 billion on battery development before forming a collaboration with Forward Marine. (GM owns a 25 percent stake in the company.) Without an automotive partner, Mohan says, boat manufacturers will struggle to develop batteries that meet marine vehicles’ specific needs. Having announced the opening of its first production plant in West Virginia just at the end of August, Forward Marine is working to build its first Pure Watercraft models for market by the end of the year. The price tag for a single watercraft will set boaters back around $45,000, Mohan says. That puts Forward Marine’s electric model very near price parity with its gas-powered counterparts, which can cost $20,000 to $60,000. The Pure Watercraft model achieves a top of speed of only 23 mph, but Mohan says she hopes this will change with coming investment and technological development.
But even if batteries are holding electric boats back for the moment, these watercraft still have lots going for them. Ron Silvia, owner of Chicago Electric Boat Company, says electric boats are great value.* His company owns a fleet of 30 watercraft in Chicago—most of which are electric—that are rented out to locals and tourists looking to cruise the waterways for a few hours during the summer. “Generally speaking, they’re very simple boats to maintain. They provide a lot of value to the end user, in the form of a quality experience on board. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s very low maintenance. And so the cost of ownership over time is significantly less,” he says, pointing out that “a gas-powered engine … requires oil changes and a lot more time in the shop.”
Technological specifications aside, one of the most surprising and fascinating aspects of these prototypes is not the way they’ve been designed but the way they’re talked about by the developers behind the watercraft. Many of these boats have been shown at the Miami and Detroit boat shows. In videos and ads from these shows, presenters talk up how having an electric boat means “no inconvenient fueling” and a “silent” engine. There’s a lot of use of the word clean and a few mentions of “no emissions,” but it’s by no means front-and-center. If you listen carefully, there’s a bit of dancing around the reasons why you would make a boat electric at all.
And this taps into a crucial piece of the recreational watercraft emissions discussion: Who are these boats being developed for? The barge in the room is whether those who live #boatlife are going to let the environment or climate change get in the way of their leisure activities.
Like his father before him, my dad also owns a pontoon boat. It’s not orange, but cruising around in it still brings back memories. “He waterskied well into his 60s,” my dad said about my grandfather recently. He’d stopped the engine so we could float out in the middle of the lake and watch the sun slip behind the trees on the far side of the lake, an eclectic mix of country music and ’80s rock ever the background soundtrack on these sunsets.
I told him I was reading up on electric boats and that I wanted to write about them. Would he ever consider switching his engine for an electric one? He grinned, looking out on the smooth water. “That would be great. Your mama and I can finally hear the music.”
Correction, Oct 9, 2022: This article originally misspelled Ron Silvia’s last name.