Oops, I did it again. I bought another quirky, cheap, yet kind of awesome-looking electric vehicle on the Chinese mega-shopping site Alibaba. This time it was a five-seater electric boat.
Here’s how it happened.
You may or may not be familiar with my weekly tongue-in-cheek column The Awesomely Weird Alibaba Electric Vehicle of the Week. It’s a chance to take an eye-opening dumpster dive through the weirdest electric vehicles that Chinese engineers dream up and bring to life.
Usually, it’s just a window shopping exercise where I pluck something interesting out of the pile – like a ride-on backyard electric train. But occasionally I find something so fun-looking and so cheap that I just have to have it.
This one actually took me a while to pull the trigger. I featured this electric boat in my column well over a year ago, but was trying to justify the purchase for a long time. After my experience with the pickup truck went so well though, I decided it would be worth the risk to give the electric boat a try. And since my family lives in Florida with plenty of river and bay access close by, it would surely get some good use.
It certainly can’t hold a candle to the best premium electric boats on the market, but it will hopefully be good enough for some nice use on the lake and cruising the calm mangrove-lined rivers of Florida.
Designing my electric boat
The first thing to decide on was the model. The factory that I found on Alibaba had a ton of options to choose from.
There were cute little two-seaters, massive 8-10 seaters, and everything in between.
I decided on the 14-foot (4.3 meter) flat-bottom boat you see below due to its compact size (and thus cheaper shipping) and its general utility.
It would be big enough to bring the family on, and also wouldn’t be too cramped if I just wanted to take it out with my wife. The two-seater options seemed like little dinghies, so this felt like the Goldilocks option.
I also really liked the front entry design, since I could just nose it in right on the bank of a lake or river even without a dock, making it easy for everyone to hop on and off. It could also likely serve as a nice swim platform. A short rope ladder mounted on the front cleats would be a great way to get back into the boat after taking a dip.
I spec’ed the boat with the factory, where I was communicating with Frank over the various details. I decided to have them build mine without batteries since I could pick those up stateside and wouldn’t have to worry about international shipping issues with lithium batteries.
The electric boat requires 24V, meaning I could go with a pair of 12V 100Ah LiFePO4 batteries. But to increase my range further and just give me some added peace of mind that I won’t have to use my emergency folding paddle, I plan to use a pair of 12V 200Ah batteries. At 12.8V, that will give me 5.12 kWh of battery.
Theoretically you could save a bit of cash by using lead acid marine batteries, but those are heavy as hell and also don’t last as long. I’d rather have the peace of mind of good-quality LiFePO4 that will surely outlive the boat itself.
The boat comes with a 500W motor, but the thing looks beefier than any 500W motor I’ve ever seen, so I think it should be plenty powerful.
It’s also a belt drive setup with an inboard motor, which is kind of funny because normally inboard motors are found in higher-end boats and sailboats. With an ICE setup, outboards are a simple and easy solution. But since this is an electric boat, I get to brag about my inboard and make it sound like a much fancier boat… until someone actually sees it.
The belt drive setup also means it will be very easy to upgrade in the future, which I plan to do. A larger motor might snag me a bit more speed.
The specs sheet says this electric boat can get up to 10 km/h (6 mph or 5.4 knots), but I think that’s probably with a single occupant. I don’t expect this to be a speed boat by any stretch of the imagination.
There were a number of different cleat options for me to choose from, from traditional to eyes, and several options for their placement.
I decided to delete the eye cleat that was right in the middle of the front entry because it seemed like a trip hazard.
I’ve found that when purchasing from China and designing a product, it helps to be as clear as possible with your instructions. Since they offered so many different cleat styles and placement options, I made the image below to send to the factory so they’d see exactly what I meant.
The last decision was color. Frank told me he could paint it any color I wanted, and could mix it up as well.
I decided on yellow for two reasons: I think it will pop nicely in the eventual YouTube thumbnail, and in the same token, if I ever break down in the middle of the channel, I’ll be nice and visible to oncoming boat traffic. Making it easy for the Coast Guard helicopter to spot me isn’t a bad thing either.
Hopefully that will never be an issue, but if I’m going to be a sitting duck, then I might as well be a yellow duck.
Buying an electric boat on Alibaba
My boat was now designed, and the last thing to do was pay for it. The boat itself was $1,080, but I nearly keeled over (c’mon, I get one!) when Frank told me the shipping price was over $3,000!
Sea freight ain’t cheap, especially in the waning months of the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone is having supply chain issues and ordering like crazy. He advised me that if I waited a bit, prices would likely come down since that had been the trend in container pricing over the last few months.
I waited and it turned out that Frank was right. Each week the price dropped a bit. After a few months it was around $2,000 and I decided to go for it. That’s still twice the price of the boat itself, but I didn’t want to wait any longer. and I also wanted to make sure the boat arrived for prime boating season in winter (when Florida is actually super nice to be in).
I paid a down payment of 30%, and Frank got to work building my boat. He showed me pictures of the partially assembled boat several weeks later, and eventually the boat was finished. I paid the final 70% of the balance and Frank got my little boat on a bigger boat.
I chose to do LCL shipping (less than a container load) because it was the most economical. Basically, that means my boat goes in a shipping container with everyone else’s stuff that also chose LCL shipping. We all split the price of the container and we actually get a pretty good price because the container is packed efficiently and the cost divvied up among all of us. I had to wait a few more days, but my container was finally packed and it was on a ship.
After my electric boat was ready, but before it was packed though, I had a video call with Frank to see the boat up close. It was great to see a live view of the boat and to get a walk-around with an explanation of the parts.
I also got a little tour of the other awesome boats in Frank’s factory, which include a smattering of weird, silly, normal, and surprisingly high-quality boats. He even has some boats with enclosed cabins. I made a whole video of it if you want to check it out.
What comes next?
Frank packaged up my boat in a massive wooden shipping crate, which I fully expect to be harder to open than I would like.
The boat itself is now on the water, having already passed through the Panama Canal and en route to the US East Coast. For those that live on the US West Coast and are balking at the shipping price I paid, understand that it would have been a good bit cheaper to ship to California since it’s a straight shot from China and you don’t have a couple of continents and one expensive canal in the way.
Now I’m waiting for my boat to arrive so I can get it through customs and then trucked over to my parent’s place in Florida. Customs is always a crapshoot in terms of how quickly it goes through. In this case, the boat is electric and so I don’t have to deal with any EPA certifications on a boat engine. And since I shipped it without batteries, I don’t have to worry about those certifications either. So with any luck, it will slide through fairly smoothly and the duties will be minimal. Even with import taxes, how much can they be on a $1,000 boat?
The last step will be to register it in Florida. I’ll add some life jackets, an emergency paddle or two, navigational lights, and a few other bits and pieces. I’m also planning to put around 500W of solar panels on the canopy too, which should give it nearly as much charging power as it is draining, making it capable of infinite range (when the sun is out, at least).
Meanwhile I’m looking for a used trailer so I can move it around, and I’m still trying to decide on a name for the boat. I’m partial to Current Affair, but if you have any good electric boat puns for the name then I’m all ears. One of my YouTube subscribers suggested Sunny Side Up, so that’s the high point to beat.
Once the boat arrives and I get a chance to test it out, I’ll be sure to update you all on how it looks and, of course, I’ll share the maiden voyage. The first “sea trials” will likely be in a private 1-acre lake, but assuming it stays hull-down and generally above the water then I’ll be taking it to a river that feeds out into a nice little bay with beautiful mangroves and plenty of manatees and dolphins.
I don’t think I’ll plan to take it out of the bay into the Gulf of Mexico. It could do it, but the little boat probably wouldn’t have the power to fight the strong current required to make it back into the bay. I’ve done it in a kayak before and was probably using all of my own 500W of Wheaties power in a much lighter boat to fight the current at the inlet.
But hey, if I do get swept out into the Gulf, then at least I’ll be in a bright yellow boat! Why make the Coast Guard’s job any more difficult?