Electric on the Bayou Part I

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

I've brought something unusual to the bayous and bays Louisiana, a quirky fiberglass motorboat named Wild Thing. The craft is a 1983 Duffy "Newport Electric Packet", designed and built in California by Marshal (Duffy) Duffield and company to provide effortless clean access to the Newport waterfront. At the time, Duffy may not have realized that his products would later be recognized as the second renaissance of electric boating, after a century long hiatus due to spark engines and petroleum.

The first well documented electric motorboat was built and tested by Gustave Pierre Trouvé in 1881. This is also recognized as the first outboard motor patent, using a chain driven propeller and cables to steer with. 42 years earlier Russian inventor Moritz von Jacobi had built and tested a motor in a riverboat, although there is little documentation about it.

Gustave Trouvé demonstrates his battery electric boat to a reporter in 1881. Photo credit Revue La Nature (public domain).

In the late 1800s through the 1930s small elegant steam launches were the popular vehicle of the wealthy on the rivers and bays of Great Brittan, but all required certified steam engineers to operate the craft. Advances in the lead acid and nickle iron rechargeable batteries, along with steam engine driven dynamos (electric generators) located within the owner's estate made it possible to run an electric motor from batteries within the hull of the boat, and recharge at the dock when the estate's steam boiler was on.

The Reliance, Thomas Edison's personal 36 foot battery electric launch built by Elco 1903, used in Fort Myers Florida at the Edison and Ford winter estates. Photo credit Benjamin Saunders (a photo of a silver plate photo at the Edison-Ford Estate Museum).

The proliferation of petroleum and internal combustion engines quickly eclipsed the development of battery electric boats, but as engines and ships grew in size, electricity made a surprising return not in the form of battery storage, but as a transmission to connect a large diesel engine to a large propeller. Large engines would turn generators, which in turn would power electric traction motors that rotated propellers. This was the only practical way to control and protect such powerful systems. Batteries would make a return appearance in submarines as hybrid drive systems with diesel generators. Battery powered boats would stay off the radar until the late 70s when one man brought them back, accidentally.

The Duffy Electric Boat company had a humble and humorous startup. The young Duffy, growing up on the waterfront of Newport California was attempting to repair the family motorboat's broken engine, and with some scavenged parts from a golf cart the teenager created a battery electric boat. The electric boat's main purpose was to squire girls about in Newport bay, until one fateful day when the head of Trojan Batteries (a golf cart battery manufacturer) spotted the boy's electric boat and asked where he could buy one, envisioning an entirely new market for his batteries. A generous deposit check produced immediately by Trojan convinced Duffy he was in the boat building business despite not yet being old enough to vote.

First generation Duffy Boat sales brochure late 1970s. The open top and surrey top 20 foot "Edison" model. Photo credit Duffy website history.

My boat comes from the second generation of Duffy boats. The 18 foot fiberglass hulls were built by W.D. Schock Corp. using the mold from the Pearson Hudson River Packet. This hull was designed by William Tritt in the 1950s, an icon in the fiberglass design industry for both automobile and boats. It was a slippery sailboat hull modeled after an 18th century river packet with an inboard drive that just needed to be adapted to an electric motor.

The 1980s Duffy Newport Electric Packet was available in three variations, the open top, surrey top, and the pop-top. They were equipped with a 36 volt 2.5HP GE electric motor and six Trojan golf cart batteries with two forward and reverse speeds. Drive belts provided the necessary gear reduction to keep the motor turning an efficient 3000 RPM speed. An electric bilge pump and running lights were standard equipment, and duplex brass hardware putting the finishing touch on the teak toe rails. A Morse flex cable helm controlled the fiberglass rudder.

The 1983 Duffy Newport Electric Packet "Pop-Top" model at the 2017 Teche Wooden Boat Show. Photo credit Benjamin Saunders.

In 2004 my father-in-law had spotted the rarest version of the Newport Electric Packet, the "Pop-Top" for sale at a marina while on a business trip to the Newport California area. He purchased it, had it repaired and re-powered with fresh batteries, and shipped to Virginia where it spent the next 12 years at a lake house. Despite the 250hp speedboat and jet skis, this became my favorite boat to play about in at the lake whenever we visited. In 2016 my father-in-law gifted the boat to me as they moved into a retirement community, all I needed to do was secure a boat trailer and tow it back to Louisiana. How could I say no?

To Be Continued in Part II.

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