Maker of electric boats hopes it's an idea that floats

Record gas prices are keeping some boat owners docked and sending boat sales off the deep end.

The perfect time to start a boat company, says Frank Jones. At least if your company is called Carolina Electric Boats.

The small business is a rarity among the state's more than 100 boat manufacturers because its boats rely on electric motors for propulsion instead of gas or diesel engines.

Jones, who carries the title of company president, launched the business in 2005 in a former auto dealership on the outskirts of Benson, less than an hour southeast of Raleigh. But it's taken three years for them to get their first boats in the water. This week it started delivery of those boats – a 10-foot fishing model named the Twin Troller X10. Other electric-powered models are being envisioned for a market expected to expand as fuel prices keep rising.

“It's the right time. … There is a market out there,” said Jack Morrow, a consultant for UNC Wilmington's Small Business Technology Development Center. Morrow has worked with individuals and companies to get boat businesses to North Carolina and helped Carolina Electric Boats get started.

A survey by the National Marine Manufacturer Association trade group found that 3 percent of boat owners didn't take their boats on the water in 2007 because of gas prices.

It's not that Jones doesn't have competition. A handful of other companies build electric boats in the state.

Budsin Wood Craft on the coast in Marshallberg, for example, makes an elegant electric powered mahogany 15-footer that lists for more than $20,000.

Carolina Electric's Twin Troller lists for $1,895 and doesn't require a trailer. It can be carried in a pickup truck. Rather than exotic woods, the boats are made from molded polyethylene. The 4-foot-wide boats have two seats, a 12-volt marine battery and, other than a few built-in beverage holders, that's about it.

But what makes the boats special are twin electric motors under the hull that can be operated with foot pedals – that lets fishermen keep both hands free to cast and reel in catches.

Building contractor Tim Tait ordered a Twin Troller earlier this year and expects delivery this week. He owns a larger, gas-powered fishing boat, but wanted a Twin Troller because it draws only 6 inches of water, opening up more fishing areas for largemouth bass near his home in Richmond, Va.

He also likes the idea of leaving his gas-guzzling boat parked on the trailer. Over two days of fishing, he can spend more than $200 in fuel.