Friday, October 2 dawned with cloud banks and light rain for the Wye Island Challenge. The forecast was for improving conditions, however, and this time the forecasters were right on. By the time the PropTalk Protector and the Iliffs’ Albemarle 24 chase boat made it down from Annapolis, conditions at the Miles River Yacht Club (MRYC) were pleasant. Rain had stopped, breeze was light, and temperature mild.
Five boats were launched at MRYC. Unfortunately, John Todd, in his Boomerang, encountered a problem and returned to the ramp. The other four started and all finished. Paul Kydd’s Sea Lion multihull was first in, at 2:03:48 after deduction of the 10-minute Wye Landing stop. Washington College’s former record holder, Farinholt’s Erged On II, came in at 4:08 powered by solar cells and advanced batteries. David Fannon, in his Glen L Amp-Eater Aquatron finished at 5:05, leading Tom Hesselink’s Lightning Bug by five minutes. David, his passengers, and Tom arguably had the best day, with true electric-boat quiet leisure—or maybe an intense tactical contest, or both, but definitely a good time.
It’s hard to imagine a much better way to spend time than a quiet trip around Wye Island. Greenery, wildlife, stately estates, working farms, and a lot of interesting little creeks slide by with little more noise than the gurgle of the hull going through the water. The Wye Island Challenge - Electric Boat Marathon is a 24-mile trip from St. Michaels into the Wye River, around the island and back—with a mandatory 10-minute stop at Wye Landing. Most electric boats excel at leisurely and quiet cruising, and the “Marathon” is in their sweet spot.
The Wye Island Challenge is also a race, however. Over the years, there have been some entrants whose objective is not just quiet passage through nice scenery. Paul started the quest for speed when he set a record with a multihull coach boat. Jim Campbell ran a lot of years in his eCanoe, each year until 2019 faster than his prior one. Jim’s eCanoe set numerous single-hull lead acid battery records. PropTalk’s 58-foot Electrashell was perhaps the craziest: a converted eight-oar shell, which held the overall record briefly until eclipsed by Ned Farinholt’s 19-foot Erged On II.
Most recently, Pure WaterCraft set the current record with its outboard and battery pack on a multihull platform. In 2019, in a windy and rough race, Pure Watercraft’s outboard system on a RIB and Flux Marine Ltd.’s outboard on a similar inflatable duked it out most of the way around the course. Finally, Flux marine prevailed when Pure Watercraft encountered a safety shutdown problem in their borrowed RIB. Pure Watercraft’s record wasn’t broken, so we were looking for a rematch at the front of the fleet this year. Covid intervened. We’ll have to wait until next year and hope the fast guys make it back.
In the weeks leading up to the 2020 race, questions were raised whether it would go forward. The Annapolis Boat Shows had been canceled, as had the Small Craft Festival at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Miles River Yacht Club was happy to provide the launch facilities, but organizers of the challenge didn’t even ask about scheduling the usual awards dinner. Tom Hesselink, chief organizer and head of the Electric Boat Association of America, was a survivor of the Covid infection and particularly sensitive to concerns about the event posing a threat to anyone. Tom called around to potential competitors and found that there was interest, but few solid commitments to run. Then, in September the decision became clear: Paul, who turned 90 in August, said he’d run the course whether or not the challenge was formally scheduled. The 20th Annual Challenge was ON.
Paul ran in the first challenge, and almost every one since. He competed a number of years in Prologue, a comfortable and capable Elliott Bay launch, patterned after efficient early 20th Century steam launches. Prologue was a veteran of cruises up and down the East Coast, and a memorable Erie Canal trip. Stepping away from Prologue for a year, Paul set an early Wye Challenge overall record in a Stillwater Coach Boat. Later, he ran some challenge races in a jon boat fitted with hydrofoils—fun but ultimately not successful. Most recently he has competed in a catamaran he named Sea Lion.
Paul built the power system for each of his boats, working with an inboard in Prologue, conversion of a commercial outboard for the coach catamaran, and creating a custom outboard using a commercial lower unit for the Jon boat and Sea Lion. His battery systems ranged from golf-cart-lead-acid through 100-plus volt lithium systems. As class definitions evolved, he sometimes won his class, but he enjoyed running each race whatever the outcome.
One year before everyone had cell phones, Paul was delayed and got to MRYC with Prologue on a trailer after the scheduled start. It was windy, but he set out to catch the competitors he thought were on the course. He didn’t catch any, since the forecast for increasing winds had resulted in cancellation of the race. Paul ran the course, and when he got back in the Miles River, he took a line from a sailboat that was having trouble powering upwind, and towed it to its dock—an impressive performance for an electric boat. Prologue is now with Paul’s son Andy and his family on a lake in Wisconsin.
For the past couple of years, in Sea Lion, Paul has been chasing a target time: two hours. He’s been close. So, for the 20th annual race, Paul decided he’d run it, Covid threat or not, and try to get his two-hour personal best. As the results show, he barely missed. So, although he claims he’s retired from competition, we’ll be working on him to get under that two hours next year. And we look forward to expansion of the fleet and an awards banquet—maybe even without face masks.
By Charlie Iliff