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Captain of an electric tour boat

Jan 2, 2020
David Berson in the bow of the 30-foot electric launch Glory, alongside 
the dock in Greenport, N.Y.

David Berson in the bow of the 30-foot electric launch Glory, alongside the dock in Greenport, N.Y.

David Berson

To the editor: I make my living as an owner/operator of a solar-charged, electric-powered, Subchapter T tour boat. Glory is Coast Guard certified for lakes, bays and sounds, and can carry up to 2,130 pounds — about 11 full-sized adults, give or take. As far as I know, Glory is the premier Coast Guard-certified boat of its type in New York, maybe in the whole country.

Since 2007, we have been off the grid, charging the batteries from four solar panels producing 700 watts installed on the roof of Preston’s Chandlery in Greenport where Glory docks. The solar power goes through an inverter and through a long electrical cord to be plugged into the boat at the dock. Glory, built by ELCO, is a 1990 reproduction of the original ELCO electric-powered, 30-foot, fantail plumb-bow launch that worked the waterways of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Glory has a Walter V-drive connected to a 4-hp Baldor shunt-wound motor, which has never — in 21 years of hard use — given any kind of trouble. The motor runs off eight AGM 12-volt batteries wired in series and parallel, which produces a 48-volt operating system. Seven of the current batteries are more than 11 years old. The controls are customized Curtis units, and I have both old needle gauges and a more modern E-meter that reads voltage, amperage hours and amperage available. The battery capacity is 500 amp-hours, and we consume approximately 25 amp-hours per 45-minute tour. Top speed with a following wind is maybe 6 knots. At that speed, Glory consumes about 80 amp-hours. Usually I run two scheduled cruises seven days a week from the end of June through Labor Day weekend, as well as myriad school programs and private charters, probably about 150 cruises per season. I could do more, but why ruin a good thing.

The season is finally over and I am exhausted. With the exception of one crying baby and dropping my phone in the water — a biannual occurrence — my season was free of disaster, and we have survived another year of spilled drinks, high heels, half-eaten lollipops and sometimes-frightened passengers. I am always amazed that folks who are genuinely afraid of the water want to go for a boat ride. Every season, there are some people I have to coax aboard, who want to come but are still dealing with grown-up primal fears of the water. Glory is long and narrow and likes to roll, nothing radical; the kids usually love it, but there have been more than a few adults who grab the rail until their fists are white.

Glory is one of those special boats, not unlike a loving reliable horse, that has never ever done anything to embarrass or scare me. If it can be said that we become devoted to inanimate objects, then it can be said with no shame that I am devoted to Glory.

I am lucky enough to captain Glory on a beautiful body of water: Peconic Bay. Five days a week, even during the height of summer, Peconic Bay is almost devoid of boat traffic, excepting for the Shelter Island ferry and the kids from the local yacht club racing in their Optis. The bay is quiet and safe. All that changes on Saturdays, to an extent, with the more radical change happening on Sundays when the powerboaters practice their skills, or lack thereof. It’s then that the bay roils with conflicting wakes and the sounds of straight pipe exhausts, transforming this beautiful body of water into a dangerous joke.

Peconic Bay is deep and long, feeding in from the east with the salt water from the Atlantic Ocean and from the west with fresh water from the Peconic and other rivers. Perfect for boating, lacking rocks mostly, with a muddy and sandy bottom, good holding, a semidiurnal tide rising and falling 3.5 feet and a current rip that can either make docking easy or difficult depending on the ebb and flow. The prevailing winds are from the southwest, blowing down the bay. During the days of summer, the winds can begin early in the day and, by 4 p.m., blow at over Force 5, developing into a smoky sou’wester. The worst is the wind from the northwest, as there is no lee and the bay gets rambunctious. It’s all good though. This bay, the result of the Wisconsin glacier 10,000 years ago, is considered by the Nature Conservancy one of the 10 most beautiful bays in the world.

Come November, Glory is pulled from the water and placed gently on the trailer, plugged in and trickle-charged all winter. She’ll be covered and put to bed until the spring. Kind of what happens to me as well.

—David Berson is a tour boat captain, freelance writer, navigation instructor and Ocean Navigator’s Nav Problem editor. His recent book, Celestial Navigation: A Practical Guide to Knowing Where You Are, was published by Seahorse Publishing.

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