by Mike Vogel
Updated 6 months ago
A marine marketing truism holds that the ideal locale for photographing a boat is in the clear blue waters of the Bahamas. Cam Heaps, CEO of electric boat maker Voltari, wanted that Bahamas photo and decided to go for more: Instead of shipping or towing his new Voltari 260 performance boat there, he would seek to set a record for the “first and longest” electric boat overseas crossing — the 91 miles from Key Largo to Bimini.
“Our goal is to be the performance and quality leader in marine EV,” says Heaps from his U.S. base in Fort Lauderdale.
Across the peninsula in Pinellas Park near St. Petersburg, former Tesla global manufacturing head John Vo has similarly grand ambitions for his Blue Innovations Group — yes, the acronym is BIG (“Perfect DNA,” page 54). “We don’t want to be known as just a boat company,” Vo says. “We want to be known as the marine technology company.”
Then there’s pioneering electric boat company Ingenity Electric, a subsidiary of Orlando-based Correct Craft. “Nobody has done more than Ingenity to bring electrification to such a broad range of products,” Ingenity President Sean Marrero said in the runup to February’s Discovering Miami International Boat Show.
Indeed, look no further than that show for evidence of how electric boat makers and suppliers seek to stake their claims for primacy in a field that Allied Market Research forecasts will grow to $16.6 billion by 2031.
“Just the beginning of something absolutely huge,” Nick Harvey, brand director for Groupe Benetau’s Four Winns and Wellcraft, told reporters at an event for electric boats. “All the small streams are going to make the big river.”
He spoke from the biggest footprint for electric boats at the “Charged! Electric Pavilion” sponsored by Fort Lauderdale-based Nautical Ventures under its CEO, boat retailing impressario Roger Moore (“Moore Odyssey,” page 56). The pavilion, co-sponsored by Ford Motor, in a Miami Beach Convention Center ballroom, featured electric boat brands that Nautical represents, along with electric water sport toys it sells and the electric Ford Mustang Mach-E and Ford F-150 Lightning pickup.
Unlike with electric autos, Florida in electric boating has a chance to build an industry.
Boat making, in contrast with Detroit’s highly concentrated American auto industry, is fragmented and disbursed geographically. Florida already is home to prominent manufacturers and their suppliers and also benefits from being the nation’s biggest market with global influence. “Florida is the best place to launch an electric boat company. This is where the customers are. This is where the waters are,” Vo says. He plans to debut Blue Innovations’ boats in 2024, built in a 50,000-sq.-ft. plant in Pinellas Park with hopes for a larger factory to come in the Tampa Bay area.
In the growing EV-boat field, startups and existing manufacturers alike jockey to be the Tesla of the waterways. They even share Tesla’s talking points: They say they’re more than just a vehicle maker. They say they’re throwing out legacy notions and creating from scratch, aiming to build a better boat, not just an electric one. They all want to be the leader, whether as a brand or as a supplier of electric propulsion to other boat makers or both.
Voltari CEO Heaps, 48, a Canadian, made his mark founding and running Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto. He says he’s loved the waters since canoeing and camping in Ontario as a boy. A few years ago, he took a ride on an electric boat. “The first time will really change your life,” he says. “I’ll never forget the day we accelerated away from the dock and the absence of noise and hearing the water coming off the hull. This overwhelming feeling,” Heaps says. “As boaters, there is a love of the waterways. There’s a deep connection with the water and the environment.” He retired from the brewery in 2018 and went all-in on electric boats with partner and Voltari President Tim Markou.
The battery factor
Electric boat makers face challenges similar to electric auto companies, such as obtaining batteries and battery materials. Their prospective buyers have to give a thought to the cost to wire residential docks for battery charging. Marinas, fortunately for the young industry, already sometimes have adequate shore power for charging, though increasing capacity as quickly as electric boat market share grows could be an issue.
Boat makers also have to contend with buyer range anxiety, though it should be less of an issue with boaters than car owners. Most boaters only take their powerboats out a few miles on their days on the water or tend to run only for a limited time at battery-draining speeds. Ingenity President Marrero told reporters at the Miami show that data from parent Correct Craft, which owns a broad line of boat brands, indicate electric propulsion today can do the job gas engines do for the majority of boat owners’ daily uses. “It’s a little bit of an education process. It’s a little bit of an infrastructure question,” Marrero says.
Says boat retailer Moore: “They’re not going to the Keys. They’re not going deep-sea fishing. These are intracoastal boats, cruising the canals, going to the restaurant, pulling someone on the wakeboard for an hour or two. There’s sufficient battery power.”
Development brings challenges alien to auto making, and car and road dynamics are different from moving boats pushing water aside. “You can’t take a drive unit from a car and put it in a boat and call it a day,” Vo says.
Electric boats, though, have pluses that might draw buyers more powerfully than the simple fuel savings offered by electric cars — no fumes, less noise, no fuel leaking into the water, little engine maintenance and hopefully greater reliability. The boat buying public also might have greater wherewithal to spend up for an electric boat than, say, the buyer of an economy car. The price for Heaps’ all-carbon Voltari, which he calls the “world’s first luxury performance” electric boat, is $450,000. It tops out at 52 knots with peak power of 740 horsepower.
Voltari plans to build 32 boats this year, ramping up to 700 boats a year in the next four years, Heaps says. The company bases sales, marketing, test drives and demos at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina in Fort Lauderdale. Batteries, software engineering and powertrain are created in Montreal, with the boats assembled in Ontario. Heaps expects to employ 20 to 50 in Florida by next year — perhaps 100 if sales to government agencies come through and a local manufacturing facility is justified.
Heaps and his Voltari 260, by the way, made it to Bimini on Jan. 19. Making it on a single charge meant prioritizing thrift over thrill. The boat ran at 5 mph to conserve power. The journey took 18 hours. Heaps says they turned on the radio for music only when they knew they would make it to the dock in Bimini with two miles to spare. “It was a wonderful experience,” Heaps says. And, happily, their slip at the Bimini Big Game Club Resort and Marina was wired for shore power — so it could be recharged for the trip home.
Florida, it is said, is a state of regions. That’s also true for the ocean economy. “It’s not a single ocean economy. It’s a lot of different economies in different parts of the state,” economist Charles Colgan says.
By population size, the Treasure Coast punches above its weight — tops in Florida — with $1.3 billion in economic impact from recreational boating. Pre-pandemic, the National Marine Manufacturers Association tallied impact by congressional districts, which are roughly equivalent in population. The district that then encompassed the Treasure Coast — district lines have been redrawn since then — came out first in Florida. (In more densely populated regions with far more activity, the impact was spread over several districts.) The Treasure Coast is home to boat makers such as Contender, Malibu Boats-owned Maverick Boat Group and Pursuit Boats, Willis Custom Yachts and Twin Vee. It also has related businesses such as Ebersold Boatworks in Stuart.
A few years back, Sean Ebersold had work done on his 1980 Boston Whaler. He wasn’t impressed. In 2019, he started his own company to refinish exteriors and then switched to synthetic teak decking work. His seven-employee company sends its people where the work is, primarily in the Southeast U.S., usually on 40- to 100-foot yachts ranging from $800,000 to $100 million. A typical job runs from $10,000 to $30,000. “Now that’s a niche,” he says. “The challenging part is finding the right people.” His solution is to pay all as employees, rather than as contractors, cover the full cost of their health insurance and offer 17 days of time off in the first year. Pay is $24 to $35 an hour. “What excites me is we are creating careers in the marine industry and paying living wages. It’s a career choice with benefits.”