Who said water and electricity don’t mix? At the Wye Island Marathon, the pairing of the two is celebrated as racers push more than 23 miles into 20 mph headwinds, 2 foot waves and rough chop, propelled only by DIY battery packs that can fail at any time.
At the 8 ½-mile mark, Jim Campbell is at the head of the pack, in control of the race. The two-time defending champion has every reason to be confident—he knows the course inside and out, he owns the most time-tested vehicle and he still has a few tricks to pull out, including a parasail, which on this windy day could be a potent weapon. But when he grabs his remote control to adjust the speed, Campbell, his boat and its cargo—400 pounds of lead-acid batteries—suddenly stop.
“I think my nylon gear picked up static when rubbing against the plastic hull of the canoe and my electronics died,” he says. Campbell does the only thing he can—he whips out his emergency jumpers and charges 12 volts back into both of his motors. Then he adjusts his speed, dropping from about 4 knots (4.5 mph) to just less than 3 knots (3.3 mph). The race is no longer a sure win.
The Wye Island Marathon is located on the east side of the Bay Bridge by St. Michael’s, Maryland, where the Wye River meets the Chesapeake Bay. It began in 2001 as a place for Campbell to show off his eCanoe, a small boat he designed that runs on lead-acid batteries and has patented dual steerable motors for slow speeds. Campbell first built the boat for practical reasons: “My shoulders and arms aren’t what they used to be,” he says, “so I looked [into developing] electric power for small boats and canoes.” Eventually, Campbell turned his hobby into a business—eCanoe now sells electric boat parts like fused battery jumpers, DC extension cables, motor mounts and rails that hold batteries to the boat to electric boat enthusiasts. The market for such parts is exceedingly small, but growing, Campbell says. Still, he does not expect to quit his day job practicing medicine anytime soon.
In the first year of the race, there were only a handful of entrants. Since then, the race—which goes from St. Michaels, Md., around Wye Island and back again—hasn’t attracted much more attention. “It’s backwater at the moment,” Campbell says. There’s one predominant reason for the race’s slow growth: Captaining an all-electric boat for 23.82 miles without a charge is a serious DIY challenge. “That’s why it’s called a marathon,” Campbell says. “If you can finish, it’s a feather in your cap.”
In this year’s race, held on October 2, high waves, winds and technical difficulties kept two of the four entrants from ever leaving shore. The other two were left fighting just to finish.
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