Handcrafted Mahogany & Ash Electric Boats


A Conversation with Tom Hesselink about the
"Lightning Bug" Electric Launch

How did you come to build electric boats and how was the design derived?

Do you build other types of boats that are not electric?

How do you know how much power is left in the batteries and how is the boat recharged?

What type of batteries are used?

What kind of maintenance should be expected?

What about areas where there are restrictions against boat houses and covered docks?

You offer three hull types, what are the differences?

Do the boats need any special treatment during the winter?

Five to six knots—how fast is that in mph?

How many skiers will the boat pull?

How well does the boat handle large wakes or rough seas?

Is there much onboard storage space?

Can you customize a boat to fit special needs?

How does one go about ordering a boat and how is delivery arranged?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 How did you come to build electric boats and how was the design derived?

Well, electric boats are nothing new--the first were built over one-hundred years ago. However, they are rare and the few that were built have been cherished by generations for their quietness and lack of exhaust fumes.

In 1987, I was asked to build an electric boat for a resident at Roaring Gap Lake in North Carolina. This community tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, places a high value on tranquility and tradition. All boats on the lake at that time were electric powered boats built in the 1930`s, and my customer wanted a similar style. So those early boats heavily influenced my 15’ Lightning Bug design; the two cushioned seats which face each other allowing for easy conversation, the convenient side-mount tiller, and the inboard motor were some of the ideas adopted. From there, I redesigned the hull for better efficiency, added the classic wood decks, and incorporated a modern drive system. The built-in cooler, canopy top and hassle-free charging system are some of the refinements added along the way. We now have over twenty five boats on that lake alone, as well as many more elsewhere.

eeyore.jpg (28886 bytes)
The "EEYORE"
A 1931 Electricraft Electric Boat
pictured on Roaring Gap Lake, N.C.

 

Do you build other types of boats that are not electric?

At this time the answer is "no"—and I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon.

Before building electric boats, I had mainly worked on 25’-55’ sailing yachts used in the Great Lakes, and built 36’-53’ sportfishing boats used for deep-sea fishing off the Carolina coast. With that experience behind me; I have to admit, when I agreed to build that first electric boat back in 1987, I figured it would be a fun project and a welcome break from the larger boats, but little else. However, it didn’t take me long to get excited about all electric power has to offer and the orders just kept coming in. Now, I also have the backing of a dedicated and experienced crew who take pride in their work. I am particularly proud of our new 22' Phantom design, which unlike most electric boats on the market, was developed specifically for electric power. Also we have a 25’ launch and a high speed yacht tender on the drawing board—all are electric.

As far as simply installing a gasoline or diesel motor in our current boats—I feel that would be too much of a compromise. You would have the ability to run for longer periods of time, but you would also gain undesirable noise, pollution and complexity. So far I haven’t had a customer come to me and say they wish the boats had a longer running time. A while back one customer summed the issue up pretty well, he said that putting a gasoline motor in these boats would be like having a picnic by a freeway. Enough said.

How do you know how much power is left in the batteries and how is the boat recharged?

The boat is equipped with a battery "fuel" gauge that continually monitors the battery condition. If the boat has the optional reserve batteries, then there is a second gauge for them. These gauges act very similar to the fuel gauge in your car.

The battery charger and its cord are located behind the aft seat. To recharge the boat, you simply plug the cord into any standard 110V outlet. When the batteries are fully charged, the three-step smart charger will automatically cut itself off, so there is no fear of over-charging. It takes anywhere from one to ten hours to recharge the boat, depending of course on how much it was run. If the boat is to be kept at an unpowered dock, then a dock mounted wind or solar powered charging system could be utilized.

 under the seat.jpg (61027 bytes)

Area under "Lightning Bug's" aft seat. The optional reserve batteries are located on either side of the motor, the battery charger is just visible under the deck.

 

What type of batteries are used? We use Lifeline absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries made by Concord. These are an advanced deep cycle version of the same lead acid batteries used in cars and trucks. The AGM batteries offer quite a few advantages over conventional deep-cycle batteries: 1. The AGM batteries are completely sealed and maintenance-free. There is no water to add and they don’t leak acid.

2. They have a very low discharge rate when stored for long periods. Meaning, if a boat is properly charged and put away in September, the batteries will still have ample power left in them the following April. Left alone, a conventional battery would self-discharge over that time and would be damaged.

3. Freezing temperatures do not harm AGM batteries, even if they are stored away stone dead. (A fully charged battery of any type won’t freeze.) 4. They have a much higher cycle life. The AGM batteries will generally last 4-5 years before they need to be replaced. Battery replacement is really the only operating cost of electric boats. The cost of the electricity used when charging the boat is minimal when compared to the operating costs of a comparable gasoline motorboat.

What kind of maintenance should be expected? The electric drive system itself is very low maintenance, especially when compared to a gasoline fueled boat. The electric motor’s bearings and brushes should be replaced on average once every four to five years, the same for the underwater shaft bearing. These are very simple tasks for any marine mechanic. As far as the woodwork, the real concern here is keeping the boat clean and out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Some of our boats are kept either in a boathouse or under a covered slip, while others are stored using our specially fitted in-water or trailering covers, which go on quite easily.

The varnish used on the boats is a two- part polyurethane which is much harder and has better durability than conventional varnish. Still, any clear finish won’t last as long as a painted finish when left exposed to the sun for prolonged periods. On average one should expect to recoat the varnish work every four to six years (longer if stored inside, and less if stored outside). Lastly, the bottom should be cleaned and repainted occasionally, as with any type boat. How often is dependent on local water conditions; figure every 3-4 years in fresh water, a little more often in salt water.

inwatercover.jpg (40436 bytes)

The in-water cover is held in place during high wind
with weighted canvas bags attached along it’s length.

 

What about areas where there are restrictions against boat houses and covered docks?

Yes, there are many areas like this and they are getting more and more popular. So far, most customers in these locations make use of our covers, which need only a few minutes to take on or off. Also, we now offer our boats in a version which retains all the varnished wood inside and around the cockpit, but has painted decks.  In this case, we can incorporate a fitted cover for just the cockpit that could be put on in less than a minute.

You offer three hull types, what are the differences?

Mainly the hull choice is one of aesthetics. If a boat is to be kept in the water at an open dock, then I would recommend using one of the painted hull versions, to cut down on maintenance. In any other case, the choice is purely the customer’s preference.

One hull style I get many questions on is the "painted hull w/ mahogany sheer plank". 

 

 mahogany hull.jpg (66509 bytes)

Painted hull with mahogany sheer planks.

With this style, we laminate the three layers of diagonally planked cedar together, and fiberglass the outside of the hull. Then before the hull is painted, we add the top mahogany sheer planks and varnish them with along with the decks. The beauty is that our in-water covers extend far enough down the side of the hull to protect these planks.

I should probably explain why our hulls do not leak. Yes, older wooden boats that were constructed with caulking between thick wood planks did sometimes leak if their hull dried out. However all our hulls are constructed much differently--they are vacuum laminated using three opposing layers of thin wood and no caulked seams, so they are completely water- tight even before we apply the protective fiberglass to them. This construction method has an additional benefit in that our hulls are just as strong but much lighter than a traditional wooden boat.

 hull under construction.jpg (32555 bytes)
Laminated hull under construction.


Do the boats need any special treatment during the winter?

Not much, other than charging up the batteries and making sure the boat doesn’t get frozen in. The fact that the boats don’t require any winterization can really extend your boating season. On those sunny late fall and early spring days, electric boat owners can pretty much have the water to themselves.

Five to six knots—how fast is that in mph?

Six to seven miles per hour—about the top speed of most sailboats of the same length.

How many skiers will the boat pull?

Okay Mr. Schmarty Pants.…Two; Ken and Barbie.  Or, maybe a couple of squirrels.

How well does the boat handle large wakes or rough seas?

Well, you are in a boat and you’re on the water so I’m not going to say you won’t get wet, but it will take a pretty large wave to wash into the cockpit. The "Lightning Bug’s" lightweight, round bottom hull combined with it’s enclosed decks make for a more seaworthy boat than most people might expect. A two or three foot wake coming off a large powerboat shouldn’t be a problem.

Is there much onboard storage space?

Both seat backs fold down to access storage areas located under the decks. The largest space is under the fore deck; it will hold four or five life jackets as well as a soft cooler and our optional folding table. Because the battery charger and the optional built-in cooler are located under the aft deck, there is not as much space back there. It still makes a good storage area for docking fenders and smaller items. Also, we mount some mesh pockets on the fold-down seat backs to keep small items like suntan lotion, corkscrews and CDs convenient.

Can you customize a boat to fit special needs?

We certainly will try. Since each hull is assigned to it’s future owner as soon as construction starts, we can usually accommodate special requests. Quite often we are asked to use different woods such as flame mahogany, teak or curly maple in a boat’s construction. Another common request is to incorporate special hardware or lighting. I count myself blessed to have a talented crew building these boats who enjoy a challenge—so don’t be afraid to ask.

How does one go about ordering a boat and how is delivery arranged?

If we can’t arrange to meet personally, I will send off a contract agreement and options list along with paint and upholstery fabric samples. I normally require a 1/3 deposit with the order, a 1/3 payment when the hull is complete and a final payment before delivery. Construction time depends on our current workload. An estimated completion date is established in the contract and boats are delivered in the order in which the initial deposits are received. A Budsin Wood Craft employee who can familiarize the new owner with the boat usually makes the delivery.

Thank you, for reading this over—please don’t hesitate to contact us if any other questions come up.

 

 

 

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