Local group working on prototype boat for electric pontoon design

 Friday, April 27, 2018

Friday, April 27, 2018

  Staff writer Justin Epley can be reached at  jepley@morganton.com  or 828-432-8943.

Staff writer Justin Epley can be reached at jepley@morganton.com or 828-432-8943.

Christian Williams has a lifelong love for Lake James and its wildlife.

That is why he, along with fellow local man Neil Saunders, formed VIS Boats to offer a potential solution to pollution they say is created by gasoline-powered boats and can harm the lake.

The new company, working out of a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing space at 233 Baker St. in Morganton, currently is in the process of building a demo of its 22-foot premier-style tritoon pontoon boat design. The boat will be fully electric and cut down on the impact of boating on nature.

“(The idea for the business) sort of started with my own project of wanting to make my family boat an electrical boat,” Williams said. “I’ve got an M.S. in technology from Appalachian (State University) in sustainability. I grew up around the lake and grew up fishing and skiing and all that. With our boat, when I looked into making it electric, there wasn’t really anything on the market and available.

“I started working with some engineers at Appalachian and one in Miami that had done some prototype electric motors for boats and started threading things together from there. With my family here, I felt like it was a great opportunity to try to start something here on the lake that I grew up on that was going to help move forward technology-wise and move forward with cleaner energy on the lake to hopefully get rid of some of the pollution that gas engines cause.”

Williams said the company’s first-generation project will be a premier pontoon with a fully-electric outboard motor equivalent to a 180-horsepower gasoline engine. He said the motor assembly, made by a company out of Colorado, is direct current and has been tested on cars in Europe. The batteries will be lithium ion, similar to those in the Tesla Model S car, Williams said.

The boats will have a complete onboard charging system. After being plugged in for a full charge, the boat will run for about eight hours at cruising speed, Williams said. Its top speed will be a little more than 33 mph, meaning it can pull skiers and towables, he said.

“It’ll really do anything you want to do on the water for a full day off a single charge,” Williams said.

VIS Boats’ pontoon also will be environmentally conscious in its construction, Williams said.

“Everything we’re doing, we’re putting together from as much recycled material as possible,” Williams said. “We’re using recycled aluminum for our structure. We’re getting recycled plastic that’s pulled out of the oceans and made into sheetboards for our decking. We’re using recycled woven vinyl for our flooring and all of our upholstery.”

VIS is getting as much material as it can from local sources and will build its demo boat and boats it sells in Morganton. The prototype is about halfway completed, Williams said, as some part still are in the testing phase, including in other countries.

The company is working on some fundraising projects and is receiving some assistance from the Valdese Economic Development Investment Corporation, Williams said. Information from the company also says it has completed an application for a $50,000 seed grant from NC IDEA. Once more money is raised, VIS will be able to hire more employees and finish the prototype boat so it can be demonstrated on the lake.

Williams hopes that will take place in early June. The plan is for that to precipitate a premiere part at one of the marinas at Lake James where folks can get a first look at the boat. The hope is to start taking customer orders and deposits after that with designs on finishing three boats this summer for sale. Williams wants to start the aluminum framing work on those boats in the next three to four weeks, he said.

Those boats will retail for $92,000, Williams said. He noted that price tag is “right on the mark” with gasoline boats with similar features and the same levels of quality and performance. He said the sector of the pontoon boat market ranges from $75,000 to $115,000 per boat, putting VIS’ first gen boat right in the middle.

Williams said VIS already has received interest from prospective customers. The company went to four boat shows in the spring to bring customer awareness to its boat, most notably the Mid-Atlantic Boat Show in Charlotte. VIS showed folks artist’s renderings of its boats and specifications for the pontoon.

“Everybody that we’ve spoken with has been extremely interested in seeing this boat on the water and working,” Williams said. “There’s just nothing like it. There’s nothing that has been built like it. There are companies making pontoon boats that are electric, but they’re equivalent to about 8-15 horsepower. They don’t have the ability to get up on plane and pull a skier or to really get out and cruise and do any of the things most people expect to be able to do on a boat.”

In all, VIS plans to build up to six of its first generation pontoon. Williams said after that, VIS plans to build some smaller (18-foot) and less expensive ($75,000 to $80,000) versions of its boat. VIS also will look into building catamaran and V hull models, he said.

More can be learned about VIS online at visboats.com, on Facebook at VIS Boats or by watching the company’s YouTube video at youtu.be/3PdQzAZMtWY. Williams can be reached at christian@visboats.com or 828-244-0659.

“The biggest aspect of what we want people to know here locally is that both founders have grown up and lived here,” Williams said. “My family goes back on Lake James to the early 1940s. The protection and sustainability and taking care of these local lakes are our first priority. Hiring local labor and being able to bring a product out that isn’t available anywhere here in Burke County on the lakes of western North Carolina and really focusing on that has been our main strategy.

“It’s a local interest in making sure we protect what we have here.”