This Juneau man built the fully electric boat of his dreams

Bob Varness wanted to go fishing with the electric boat during the salmon derby. But he didn’t want to get fish slime in his electric battery hull. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

The capital city has been one of the most enthusiastic adopters of electric vehicles in the state. There are now more than 200 EVs on the road. But that technology isn’t limited to the pavement.

Listen now

One man is on a mission to bring the first fully electric passenger vessel to the water in Juneau.

There’s no rumble of an internal combustion engine on the Tongass Mist. Instead, it glides along the water quietly — which is tranquil but weird.

You can hear the whine of the electric motors, the whoosh of the water and that’s it.

“It turns a lot of heads,” Bob Varness said. “I mean, no matter where I go, and it will probably happen today, once we get over to the lightering dock, if there’s a vessel in there pitching fish off, people literally flag you down, ‘Come on over. Is that electric?’”

Sure enough, before we’re even out of the harbor, a woman leans out of the window of her houseboat, delighted. “That’s awesome.” she calls out. “So nice!”

The Tongass Mist wasn’t always a gleaming six-person catamaran.

Varness describes the dilapidated boat he bought off Craigslist as a “shell of corroded junk.” At one point, it didn’t even float.

“I think it’s sunk twice,” Varness said.

In a surprising twist of fate, this sunken vessel was resurrected from the watery depths and has now been outfitted to run off of hydroelectricity.

The boat can maintain a charge for several hours, and Varness says there’s virtually no range anxiety for a number short excursions. It’s powered by eight lithium batteries, which he charges at the boat harbor when docked.

Fully electric boats are rare in Alaska or anywhere in the United States — especially one’s licensed for commercial passengers. Few boat manufacturers make them, even though parts are available. For those skilled enough to take a DIY approach, like Varness, the U.S. Coast Guard permitting process can be lengthy.

Still, Varness says he started this complicated project out of principal. He first had the idea at one of his old jobs — captaining a whale watching tour.

“You look out at the horizon, and you could see the brown layer of soot looking up on towards Haines on backside of shelter island,” Varness said. “I thought, wow, there’s so many boats out here right now. Something needs to change.”

The 25-foot catamaran is powered with electric batteries and a small solar panel on top. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

In retirement, Varness initiated that change. His first plan included designing a two story catamaran — big enough to carry almost 50 people. He worked with a naval architect for the past six years to turn that dream into a reality. The Tongass Mist is his smaller proof of concept.

It’s cost him $50,000 to build. He’s poured hundreds of hours of labor into it — meticulously wiring all the electrical components himself.

“Actually felt pretty hopeless at one point,” Varness said. “Thought that this boat’s going to sink on paper.”

But this summer, he finally completed the Tongass Mist. Now he’s working on getting coast guard approval for the big battery-powered boat: the Tongass Rain.

John Neary, the Director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center — says he appreciates locals, like Varness, helping advance the technology. In a couple of years, they might need it.

It’s projected the glacier won’t be visible from the visitor center in about 20 years. But tourists will still want to see it. Neary says the U.S. Forest Service is considering electric boats to bring tourists closer to the retreating glacier.

“We’re thinking it might be easier, cleaner, quieter to have a slow engine doing just a few knots that would be electric-powered,” Neary said. “Because the technology is there now, and it will soon be there as people push the technology forward.”

Varness isn’t the only entrepreneur eyeing the potential of electric boats. Gastineau Guiding, a tour company, is also designing a blueprint for a large electric vessel.

But for now, the Tongass Mist is the only fully electric tour boat in Juneau.

Back out on the water, Varness, says he hopes to have customers on board next summer.

“Basically, it’s my dream boat. It’s everything I ever wanted,” Varness said. “If I don’t build another one, that’s OK. I got mine.”

Varness recently got the Tongass Mist insured. By default, he received almost a million dollars in coverage if the vessel sinks and leaves an oily sheen.

He was thrilled to tell his insurance provider that would never happen.