Electric boats fast enough to pull a wakeboarder, like this Nautique being demonstrated last year, are still in the experimental stage. But it won’t be long before they show up in Muskoka. In the meantime, alternative fuels and cleaner gas motors are having a big impact.

Park that smoky old motor at the back of the boathouse. There are plenty of ways to cross the lake without harming the planet

By Jon Spratt

We come to Muskoka for two main reasons: to enjoy the pristine waterways and to have fun. So what do we do when those two things conflict? Like when we’re propelled across the lake by a massive fuel-consuming motor.

As spring takes hold, and Muskokans launch their boats back into the water, many won’t give a second thought to the environmental implications.

That lack of consideration is disappointing to Stan Hunter, a Port Carling boat builder.

“I’m troubled by the environmental impact of the kind of boating we do and our habits,” Hunter said. “It seems to me, if (gas) is a finite resource, we might want to use it for higher priority things than just recreation.”

While Hunter understands the desire for high-powered lake leisure, he also respects older, green-friendly methods.

“There are new technologies all the time and it’s nice to keep abreast,” he said. “I’m a big fan of old technology: oars and sails.”

Sailing is making a bit of a resurgence, recreational rowing is catching on, and non-powered vessels will always have a place in Muskoka boating; but motorboats have been a key part of the lakes for a century or more – and they’re not about to yield that prominence anytime soon.

Fortunately, things are looking up for boaters who want to reduce their impact on the lakes without missing out on the motor-driven fun. Mirroring their auto industry counterparts, the boat industry is exploring numerous ways to decrease their products’ environmental impact.

John McKnight, director of environmental issues for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, says reducing the environmental impact of boat motors is mandated by Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. The industry is making great strides in that direction, he said.

“All the new technology that’s out there right now is far surpassing what was available five or 10 years ago,” McKnight said.

Catalytic converters, which reduce harmful emissions, have become commonplace on inboard boat engines, and they could start showing up on outboard motors. McKnight suggests that catalytic converters could be commonplace on outboard engines by 2020.

Traditional two-stroke motors are known to waste fuel; four-stroke motors are more efficient, but they’ve been criticized for being not as quick off the line.

McKnight says both forms of outboards have made enormous progress: direct-injection two-stroke engines like Evinrude’s E-TEC have come a long way in recent years, and four-strokes have made great performance gains. But in terms of options on the market today, he considers inboards the way to go for green boaters.

“A fuel-injected catalyzed engine is really the cleanest technology that’s available today,” he said.

Alternative energy

The type of engine you’re putting fuel into can make a significant difference, but what about the fuel itself? Adding plant-based ethanol to gas has reduced petroleum consumption, but it has caused no end of headaches for boaters because of the way it can absorb water.

McKnight says there are much more promising products on the horizon.

“I think one of the really neat developments to come out in the next few years is just better biofuels,” he said. “It may not greatly reduce our costs of boating in terms of fuel, but it’s going to greatly take away our dependence on oil, which is positive.”

McKnight’s group recently tested isobutanol, a renewable fuel just beginning to emerge.

“We like it a lot more than ethanol; we have higher (fuel efficiency) and it doesn’t have the water solubility problems that ethanol has,” he said. “It’s starting to come online; we’re starting to see companies consider it.”

Another fuel that manufacturers are considering is electricity.

Electric boats have been around for over a century, but the power source has usually been restricted to slower boats with displacement hulls. That’s starting to change.

In 2011, Correct Craft unveiled the Ski Nautique E, its first attempt at an electric-powered waterski boat. This year, they introduced the Super Air Nautique 230 E, an electric wakeboard boat.

While the idea is intriguing, and it won raves from the professional wakeboarders who tried it out, Greg Meloon said it’s a few years away from being a practical mass-market alternative.

“The boats we have right now are what I would call a product technology exercise,” said Meloon, vice-president of product development for Correct Craft.

Meloon compares the 230 E wakeboarding boat to the original Chevrolet Volt automobile: with proof that the technology’s possible, the company is investigating the logistics of bringing it to production.

“Our goal is to sell them sooner rather than later,” he said. “It will be in extremely limited numbers to begin with. We have to crawl before we walk.”

While electric power will reduce boaters’ environmental impact, don’t expect it to reduce boating costs – at least in the early years of the technology.

“It’s a pretty significant price increase for the technology at this point,” Meloon said.

Green shift?

Of course even with new technologies, there’s the question of whether consumers are consciously concerned about their impact – particularly in an area such as Muskoka with so many high-end, seasonal residents.

Stan Hunter isn’t optimistic. “Because we’re an affluent corner, people don’t care that much,” he said.

Cottagers should be concerned, he added, because some level of environmental impact is practically ingrained in the cottage culture of Muskoka.

“There aren’t alternatives offered, which I think there should be,” he said. “By that, I mean more sailing, more rowing, more paddling; less convenient motorboating.”