Electric Outboards, are they worth it?

Electric propulsion is growing in popularity! A few years back, the thought of something being powered by an electric motor was just a distant dream.

I remember when our school was “visited by an electric car.” The engineering department at the local university put a considerable amount of focus and effort into creating an electric vehicle. This car was something out of a science fiction movie, with everything being ultra sleek and efficient in an attempt to barely meet the minimum standards of what a normal citizen would consider to be a “car”!

Jump forward a few years and electric cars are common place on streets and parking lots. They no longer draw a crowd around them when they appear, as they have become somewhat accepted and commonplace.

The same seems to have occurred in the marine environment. Boats are being powered by electric motors instead of by an internal combustion engine. Large boats have inboard electric motors, and their dinghies are being fitted with electric outboard motors.

When it comes to propulsion for your dinghy, is it worth the upgrade to electric? Well, it depends on what you want.

The most prominent and trusted brand in electric outboard motors is Torqeedo. They are the motor that people picture when they are talking to someone about electric outboards. This is because Torqeedo made the perfect electric outboard.

The battery is included in the motor assembly, so it looks like a clean installation. Then they made the battery information clear and easy to understand! When you are motoring along, it tells you how long you can sustain this speed and how many miles you can go at this speed. This made it easy for people to realize and understand that you can’t go full power all the time! The faster you go, the shorter a distance you can motor. The slower you go, the farther you can go on a single charge.

So, what are the great advantages to a Torqeedo motor? Well, first of all, the thing is silent! The motor is powered by electricity, not thousands of explosions per minute. This means that the motor will be silent when you are coming in to dock, which makes it easy to communicate with people in the boat with you as well as those on shore. How often is it that someone is trying to tell you something but you can’t hear them because you are sitting right next to the noisy outboard? That problem disappears!

The drawback to this very green situation is that the motor runs on electricity and that power won’t just fall out of the sky! Or will it? Charging the battery is a slow process. If you have the time and enough solar panels, you can easily charge the battery with the sun, which does mean that power is falling from the sky. Charging the battery up is going to take a few hours, whether you have a giant solar array and all the sun in the world, or if you are plugged in to a generator. Charging takes time and that time means that you can’t use the outboard while the charging is taking place.

I had the opportunity to speak with the Torqeedo representative at the Annapolis Boat Show in 2018, and he said that the outboard will charge overnight when plugged into the mother ship. This is fine, but the problem of generating the power just got shifted over to the main boat.

In our opinion, the boat or the dinghy can be electric, but not both. We have an electric motor in our sailboat, and therefore can't run our motor to generate the power to charge the outboards’ battery; we already need that power for the boats battery bank! We rely on solar power to charge up the boats batteries, and barely have enough for that task, throwing in the need to charge another battery is simply out of the question.

We find that when we anchor somewhere, we then motor around in the dinghy to get to different beaches, snorkeling spots, or shore. We have to be conservative with our motoring when on the boat, since we have limited range with our electric motor, and the thought of having to be equally conservative in the dinghy would get old really fast!

Sometimes, we feel like we are putting on a show in the anchorage, as we will go between shore and our boat a few times before we actually “go to shore.” This is because we may have forgotten something and need to return to the boat to fetch it before we go. With an electric outboard, these “whoops I forgot something” trips might be too much and consume your range too quickly. We also do a fair amount of exploring by dinghy, going into uncharted waterways where we can explore. Having the worry of range will quickly take away from the carefree joy that comes from exploring new mangrove canals in an island you just landed on.

For these reasons, we have a gasoline outboard which we use on our dinghy. We have a 2hp Honda air cooled outboard, because it is light enough that I can carry it in one hand, which makes mounting it on the dinghy even easier, and it has an internal gas tank that holds a quart of fuel.

The setup is just as clean of an installation as the Torqeedo, and the range is probably also very similar, but the charge time is where the Honda runs ahead of the Torqeedo.

Since the fuel tank is 1 quart, we simply carry a 1 quart mason jar of gasoline in the dinghy, along with a funnel. Should we find ourselves low or out of fuel, all we need to do is decant the jar of gasoline into the outboard motor, then we can fire back up and continue on our way. Technically, that was the recharge phase which would take the Torqeedo hours to complete.

The Honda is much louder, and you can’t really have a conversation in the boat while motoring, but you will get there faster than rowing, and you can carry an entire “tank of fuel” with you.

We feel that if you have an electric motor on your boat, maybe a gasoline outboard would be a good idea over an electric outboard. This is because charging is the biggest hurdle to overcome with electric motors, as the power has to come from somewhere and if the sun isn’t power the solar panels and the wind isn’t powering the wind generator, you will need to fall back on fossil fuels for electrical production.

If you have an internal combustion motor in your boat, then you can generate the power needed for the outboard motor’s charging, and suddenly, the thought of producing power for the outboard’s battery doesn’t seem like such a stressful point!

So, if your boat is electric, consider a gasoline outboard for your dinghy.
If your boat is not electric, an electric outboard would be a fun way to enjoy the joys of electric propulsion while still having a reliable source of electricity for the charging times.