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Catalina and Back, No Noise, No Gas

July 11, 1998|STEVE CARNEY

Marshall Duffield hopes to make a big splash in the boating world today, but do it with a vessel that produces almost no wake or noise.

Duffield, founder of Duffy Electric Boats of Newport Beach, will pilot his 62-foot-long, 3-foot-wide Duffy Voyager from Newport Harbor to Santa Catalina Island and back to show the durability and reliability of electric boats. According to his research, no electric boat has made the trip before.

"It's kind of funny-looking, but it's very efficient," Duffield said of the sleek craft, designed to cut through waves instead of bobbing atop them. "It's really just a giant box to hold batteries."

This year, the Duffy Voyager will make the trip alone. But next year, Duffield hopes someone else will have a boat to compete with his for the Catalina Challenge. He also plans cruises from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Bimini Islands in the Bahamas and across the English Channel and back to show off the boat's capabilities.

"We've been working on this thing so long, it's kind of fun to see it come to fruition," said engineer Jack Heiser, who will ride with Duffield today and who has been building boats with him since they were teens.

The pair will leave at 9 a.m. on the five- to six-hour trip.

Duffield built his first electric boat when he was 19. He said he broke the engine on his parents' boat by taking too many harbor cruises with girls, so he rigged a vessel with an electric golf-cart motor.

"When have you ever been in a golf cart that didn't run?" he said. "I couldn't go five feet down the bay without somebody saying, 'Where's the smoke? Where'd you get that?' "

Now, 28 years later, 3,500 Duffy boats buzz through waters worldwide--about 1,000 in Newport Beach alone, he said, pointing out the distinctive blue covers next to nearly every dock.

The Voyager project started three years ago, and Duffield and his crew finally unveiled the carbon-fiber and foam vessel in December. Since then, they've been tinkering with the design and tweaking the cooling system and controls in the cramped cockpit.

"We're not out to change the world with this thing," Duffield said. But he hopes to demonstrate the boat's quiet, trouble-free and thrifty nature.

And though he didn't start making electric boats to save the planet, Duffield--who also drives a GM electric car--wants to show how energy-efficient and nonpolluting such a boat can be. The 52-mile round trip to Catalina will use less than $1 worth of electricity, he said, compared with his regular boat that burns about a gallon and a half of diesel fuel per mile.

"We all want to see the mountains again every day," he said, "but nobody does anything about it."

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