‘A rocket ship’: How the perfect combination of carbon fibre and batteries is creating a better boat

Voltari

If you wanted to build a revolutionary “Tesla of the water,” where would you set up shop? Montreal? Toronto? Merrickville?

For business partners Cam Heaps and Tim Markou, the sleepy village of Merrickville on the shores of the Rideau River was just the place to put their dream into motion. The duo bought the former Aylings Marina, perfectly located on the river, close to important suppliers and near the U.S. border. 

And it’s there that they’re building their new manufacturing operation, Voltari Electric Boats, with the intent of revolutionizing the boating industry.

Using carbon fibre for the body of the boat and an electric motor with seven battery packs, the two men have created a vessel that’s designed to be fast, silent, non-polluting and nearly maintenance-free. 

“Our passion is not just to make an electric boat, it’s to make a better boat and, in doing so, to cleanse the waterways of the world and restore tranquility to our beautiful waters,” Heaps told EOBJ.

The electric speed boats are equipped with a 160kWh lithium-ion battery pack system capable of speeds of approximately 110 kilometres per hour. Carefully engineered for the marine industry, the high-output system is water-cooled and backed by a 10-year warranty. The price tag of $397,000 is steep, but no expense has been spared on this luxurious water ride.

“Merrickville is our final assembly and testing facility and we put everything together here,” explained Heaps. “We have our upholstery shop downstairs and we add in the (Rockford-Fosgate) stereo system, the wiring and all the 12-volt stuff.”

Not wasting any time, Heaps and Markou have built and tested a prototype and are now perfecting the “brains” of the machine that will be driven by Garmin Technology, while also renovating their new boat yard. According to the two men, they are ready to take orders and start production of the Voltari Electric Boat.

Not surprisingly, local officials are pretty keen on the venture, too.

“It’s exciting for Merrickville with its historic industrial base and shows that we’re well placed for this type of niche industry to thrive and open other possibilities for unique environmental industries,” said Merrickville-Wolford Mayor Doug Struthers.

“The technology is innovative, it’s game-changing for that industry. The battery aspect, of course, but the material they are using is the game-changer,” added Ann Weir, economic development manager with Leeds Grenville.

The Voltari prototype had its first launch at Ivy Lea, near the Thousand Islands Bridge. The City of Kingston agreed to install an EV charging station at Confederation Basin in anticipation of the first Voltari boats.

“We’re keen to do it because we have a strong strategic priority from our city council to promote projects that advance climate leadership,” said Paul MacLatchy, environment director for the City of Kingston.

Now production is starting in Merrickville, with inputs from Arnprior and Montreal.

The carbon fibre body of the boats is manufactured at Competition Composites Inc. (CCI), a fibreglass and carbon fibre fabrication service in Arnprior.

“It’s really an extension of what we do, but normally we do custom fabrication, so this is a bit larger — larger parts and larger volume,” said John Rae, sales director at CCI. “It’s been a great relationship so far and we’re looking forward to expanding that further.”

The hull, the top deck, the consul, the swim platform and the T-top of the boats are all fabricated in Arnprior before being trucked down to Merrickville, where they meet up with the motor and batteries designed and manufactured by Canadian engineer Bruno Tellier and his team at LTS Marine in Montreal.

At the Merrickville boat yard, the components are fitted together with the addition of the Garmin-powered “brains” and a touch screen.

“We’re implementing digital switches, catching up to where cars are at, so you can control everything on the boat from the screen,” said Andrew Hanke, a marine field application engineer with Garmin in Florida.

Finally, the boat is outfitted with a hand-crafted custom interior finish and upholstery.

Right now, Heaps and Markou are building one boat at a time as they clear and renovate their new boat yard. They intend to completely restore the two stone buildings they’ve purchased and clean up the site, which was a boat-building yard and marina for more than 60 years. They want to create a catwalk for visitors to tour the yard, as well as a small museum to showcase the building’s more than 200-year history, which included a stint as the Percival Plow and Stove company in the late 19th century.

Then, they’ll ramp up production and expect to hire up to 200 employees locally over the next five years.

The venture began with Heaps, who started Steam Whistle Brewery in downtown Toronto in 1998. With a passion for historic buildings, he turned a run-down structure in downtown Toronto into a fully restored national historic site and brewery that gave the established big boys of the beer industry a run for their money.

By 2008 when the financial crisis bit, Heaps, a boating enthusiast, and a friend saw an opportunity to purchase high-end boats in Miami for very little money. At about the same time, they came across carbon fibre, with its extreme lightweight and preternatural strength.

“We started cutting off parts of those boats — top deck, consul, fuel tank — and replacing them with carbon fibre, therefore reducing considerable weight on existing boats,” recalled Heaps. “When we took the boats out on the ocean, with the same engine and same hull but a very different power-to-weight ratio, we had reduced fuel consumption, were going faster and putting less wear and tear on the motor and this proved what we had hoped.”

Meanwhile, Markou, an executive manager in the tech sector with a background in corporate sales and a passion for boating, was looking to revive the floundering Pantera race boat company when he heard about Heaps’ efforts to use carbon fibre and electric motors for marine applications. The two men met and Heaps suggested Markou check out LTS Marine in Montreal. Markou says that visit and a test drive of one of LTS high-performance electric boats was a eureka moment.

“It changed my life when I drove that (LTS prototype) boat. It blew my mind, just the silence of it and the performance on the water,” said Markou.

LTS had cracked the riddle of electric boat propulsion on fibreglass boats, but the weight of the battery packs meant they didn’t have a huge range. Since LTS was more focused on ski and water sports, torque was really the focus.

“So I thought, wow, look at what Tesla has done on land. If we could do a Tesla of the water, how great would that be. But you can’t just grab those systems and put them in marine, for the same reason I can’t just grab the motor out of my Volkswagen and just drop it into a boat,” said Markou.

The Voltari boats, built entirely out of carbon fibre, are light – a 26-foot boat weighs about 1,100 pounds. That means they can fit seven 440-pound batteries into one boat and get both speed and range.

According to the Voltari website, the boat can travel from Miami to the Bimini Islands, about 90 km, in the Atlantic Ocean on a single charge.

“We’re still playing with the weight and finding ways to reduce it because it’s all about displacement of weight and if we can shed more, we’ll have a rocket ship,” said Anthony Normoyle, project manager with Voltari. 

Besides their profile, speed and absolute silence, the Voltari boats have no fluids in their systems, so there’s nothing to discharge into the water. Plus, they’re virtually maintenance-free.

“If you think of a cordless power drill, people just chuck them in the shed and, whether you use it every day or once a year, you just plug it in and use it. It’s the same with these boats,” said Markou.

On an electric car there are brakes, suspension, tires and windshield wipers that need to be maintained, but there’s nothing like that on a boat, except for perhaps the odd water pump that may need replacing. 

The hulls are modeled on the Pantera racing design and are wake-friendly.  

“What we find nowadays on a lot of lakes in Canada is a lot of people driving around in these lake-surfing boats that are designed to make three- and four-foot waves. The deep V design on the Voltari is designed to cut through the water so it’s a very smooth ride,” explained Heaps.

And forget about winterizing, Heaps adds.

“We drop the boat to a 30 per cent charge and your boat is winterized. There’s no need to drain any systems, change oils or do all that stuff. It’s the future of boating.”

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