Will non-gasoline powerplants change the way we power our fishing boats? Not anytime soon – but there are some interesting prospects on the horizon.
With fuel forever a concern thanks to economic and environmental concerns, plus those lovely ethanol issues, considering one of the new diesel outboard engine options hitting the market may make sense. But while the enhanced efficiency of diesels certainly is attractive, one can hardly argue that they solve all of the issues related to burning dinosaurs as we fuel our fun. So, what about electric and/or hybrid boats? And, are there any other attractive options out there that could one day replace our need for internal combustion?
Thanks to the success of electric and hybrid automobiles, electric outboards seem like a natural progression. If only. One major problem is the absence of regenerative braking. When you take your foot off the accelerator in a car and hit the brakes, the automobile’s system generates power that’s fed back to the car’s batteries. Well, to state the obvious, boats don’t have brakes. Another issue is that unlike automotive applications, boat motors generally run at high RPM for extended periods, which quickly saps the juice out of the battery banks. In fact, one of the larger electric outboards around, the Torqeedo Deep Blue 50 R (which produces about 80 horsepower) can only maintain top-end for about 20 miles of range – and that’s with a BMW i3 HV lithium-ion bank that costs about $32,000 and takes up half the deck space in a 17-foot center console. The range is much better at pre-planing speeds (close to 90 miles), which may make sense for commercial operators like water taxis. But for anglers? Oh, please.
If you’re willing to plod along at displacement speeds, electric outboards make a lot more sense. A three-horse Torqeedo or the top-end Minn Kota or Motorguide electric bow-mounts have no problem taking small boats up to a few mph and keeping them there for hours at a time, with much more reasonable battery systems. Again, we’ll state the obvious: who wants a propulsion system that’s limited to jogging speeds?
A Natural (Gas) Option
A much better potential solution to the power dilemma may lay in a different kind of gas – the kind you can’t see. Are we talking about propane? Nope. The slew of small propane outboards that hit the market a few years ago has more or less flamed out, in no small part thanks to parts sourced to the cheapest bidder which (shocker!) turned into wads of corrosion after a season or two of use in the brine. A few companies with experience in the marine field, including Tohatsu and Mercury, still make five-horse versions of propane outboards, but five measly horses aren’t going to solve anyone’s problems.
A much more intriguing prospect can be found in natural gas. No outboard manufacturers currently make an engine that runs on natural gas, but an outfit called Blue Gas Marine builds fuel systems that can convert gasoline outboards made by any of the major manufacturers to run on it. According to Blue Gas, making the conversion nets you a 70-percent drop in fuel cost, a 40-percent drop in fuel consumption, and a 70-percent drop in pollution. But as all those factors go down, what happens to power? Nothing. We ran a 25-foot Dusky center console powered by a Suzuki V-6 DF300AP that had been converted with a Blue Gas system, and everything from throttle response to WOT power seemed no different than running it with gasoline. The weird thing is that we could run the same exact rig on gasoline, too.
One of the most surprising aspects of a Blue Gas conversion is that the engine can still run on gasoline at a moment’s notice. In fact, all it takes is pressing a button. So you can have your boat’s fuel tanks full of good ol’ petrol and if the natural gas tanks run dry, it’s not a problem.
But (sigh) that’s also the problem. That Dusky was purpose-built to run on natural gas and was constructed with tanks for the compressed natural gas built-in. While you can adapt your outboard to run on this stuff with relative ease, it may take a rather substantial retrofit of your boat. On top of that, while it won’t be a huge impediment to trailer-boaters, good luck finding a marina fuel dock that has a CNG filling station.
The bottom line? Until someone can come up with a battery that houses the power of a 100-gallon fuel tank in an area that’s, well, at least no bigger than a 200-gallon fuel tank, electric power isn’t likely to solve any problems for us boaters. And while natural gas and propane do hold some interesting promise, serious impediments remain. At least for the immediate future, it’ll take the same old petroleum products to propel us to those pelagics. Oh well – at least burning dinosaurs is just plain fun.