Going electric to Sucia Island

When my husband and I mention we own an electric boat, we are typically met with looks of skepticism and comments such as: “How long does the cord have to be – isn’t it a little inconvenient?” Or “Water and electricity usually don’t mix well – how can that be safe?”  Or “What if you run out of electricity?”

I am happy to report that our 21-foot “E-boat,” Maggie (short for Magnetic Personality), is more than safe and quite capable of providing hours of enjoyment without the need for an extension cord. These plucky boats are typically found on sheltered lakes such as Seattle’s Lake Union, or cruising the channels of resort communities like Newport Beach, CA where they were developed. Powered by 16 batteries with a run time of 10 hours, and an electric motor the size of a bread box, they are quiet, energy efficient and environmentally friendly. And with the wrap-around windows and interior heater, can be used comfortably at any time of year, rain or shine — even here in the Pacific Northwest.

Living in a waterfront neighborhood bisected by sheltered canals, we have spent many satisfying hours hosting friends and business associates silently cruising and enjoying the beautiful scenery of the surrounding San Juan Islands while sharing stories and potluck meals. Our neighborhood is located on a point, with Georgia Strait on one side and Lummi Bay on the other, just northwest of Bellingham, Washington.  

One recent summer, as the weather warmed up and the days grew longer, the call of bigger water became a bit too strong. Following an evening of “what-if” conversations, we decided to stretch Maggie’s water-wings and leave the safety of the quiet canals and try our hand at easing into the Strait during calm weather.    

We were treated to orcas breeching and watched porpoises race and cut through the water. Mind you, I wouldn’t recommend testing nature to anyone less than an experienced boater, and I fully put my faith in my husband’s ability to captain her safely. He has years of boating experience on sail and motor boats, as well as proudly hanging his captains license on our living room wall. He also knows this particular boat inside and out. I am, on the other hand, highly experienced at being a passenger and somewhat capable at being the occasional mate.

Following several successful trips on the Strait, my husband suggested that we consider stretching her limits even farther and plan to make a trip to Sucia Island. Several families had already planned to make the cruise on a particular date, so it seemed prudent to follow their lead; one even volunteered to act as the “Mother Ship” at our destination, so we could tie up and plug in the power supply to keep the batteries charged. In our minds, this seemed like a done deal.

When the date arrived, we loaded up our provisions for the overnight stay: sleeping bags, food, water, tent, cell phones and chargers, and radios. We had previously installed a depth finder and chartplotter and felt ready for this maiden voyage. After more than a few phone calls to the Mother Ship to confirm weather and water conditions on the Strait, we headed out, cleared the mouth of the channel and set our course for Sucia Island. High fiving each other, we settled back to enjoy the ride.

Clearing the outer markers, our exhilaration was short lived as we realized we were heading into some pretty serious swells – all that the Georgia Straits could offer with strong northwesterly winds. These created four to six foot seas and reminded us yet again that you don’t go when you want to, you go when you can. In a more conventional vessel, this might not have been a deterrent but we know Maggie’s capabilities and returned to our home dock to wait until the following morning.

Looking at a not so pleasant Georgia Strait.

The next day was beautiful, so we decided to press on and head out again. But the remnants of the previous day’s blow still created lumpy seas with swells of four to six feet. With no wind to speak of, though, we continued on our course and met the swells head on. We soon reached a point where the decision to turn back was in the category of “six of one, half a dozen of another” and we had the promise of calm seas in the lee of Matia and Sucia islands. Glancing at me and noticing a faint tinge of green creeping into my face, my husband turned over the helm and said, “Here, you drive. Pretend I’m dead.”

He knew the concentration would keep me from a growing sense of panic, not to mention helping to calm my churning stomach. Guiding me expertly, he taught me how to read the waves and my stomach and fear relaxed as I concentrated on keeping us pointed into the swells. Maggie rocked and bucked with the waves, but held steady and kept us on our course, even though the changing direction of the tides buffeted us from side to side. I continually watched the depth, which ranged anywhere from 12 feet to over 200 feet in places. My faith in my husband’s skill and boating experience allowed me to keep my nervousness at bay while trying to keep the boat steadily aimed forward. Interesting to note: on a flat body of water, with no wind, this little e-boat travels at a full-on speed of five knots. In the Georgia Straits, on a choppy day, we were held to a maximum of about three knots. Maybe.

Fortunately, the water began to flatten out about an hour into the trip. I happily returned the helm to my husband and he navigated us safely until we reached the welcoming harbor of Fossil Bay to dock and raft up with our Mother Ship, two hours after we set out on our experimental trip. Greeted by relieved friends with waves and smiles, we set the dock lines and somewhat shakily boarded our host boat to quickly down a much needed libation.

Sitting at the dockside table sharing a welcomed picnic lunch, we enjoyed telling our tale. Later that evening, we loaded up the e-boat with our friends and took a victory lap through the waterways at Sucia. As is our custom, the boat carries in her holds numerous pieces of musical equipment, from harmonicas to makeshift percussion instruments, so we formed an improvised boat-band to serenade our fellow mariners. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take photos of the amazed expressions that were common when they saw us cruising by. One craft in particular, the beautiful 1920’s restored Olympus, in all of her shiny brightwork glory, dipped her flag as we passed. Unbeknownst to me, and as I later learned, this was a huge honor.  

Fortunately, the return trip the following day was devoid of drama, and we had a companion boat returning with us, just in case we needed some kind of assistance. The water was flat calm and we were able to fully enjoy and appreciate the rugged beauty of the San Juan Islands while returning to our safe dock in less than two hours. Good thing – we only had 3.6 hours of battery power remaining!

I learned something very important about the seaworthiness of our little boat and was very thankful that my husband has not only the experience, but also the expert knowledge, to keep us out of harm’s way – even if we were testing the limits (and maybe our sanity) with this adventure.  It was a little later in the evening of our return trip that he admitted he was quite humbled by the “big water” and was yet again reminded we are not larger than Mother Nature, and we need to constantly respect that.

It’s unknown whether we will attempt something like this again (what’s the advice…”don’t try this at home”), but I’m pretty thrilled that I was part of the adventure!

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One Response to Going electric to Sucia Island

  1. Laurie May 4, 2017 at 3:31 am #

    A delightful and captivating story. Felt like I was there. Loved it.

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