These electric houseboats designed after classic French barges are now available for visitors to cruise up close to nature through one of France’s most environmentally sensitive areas, the Marais Poitevin (Poitevin Marsh) Regional Park.
The Park covers half a million acres (204,000 hectares), with 8,200 km of waterways and canals threading through a maze of picturesque natural islets, inspiring the nickname ‘la Venise Verte’ (The Green Venice).
Local ecotourism operator Au bout du Marais (The End of The Marsh) was assigned the rights to operate a non-invasive boat rental service for guests to navigate the Sèvre Niortaise river immersed in natural and cultural history.
Part of Natura 2000 network of protected sites
There is an active rental industry in the Marais for daytime outings in small punt boats, but in 2020 the park authorities decided to request proposals for operating 2 larger boats to allow more people to enjoy extended and overnight stays.
With 337 bird species, more than 100 species of plants, 50 different terrestrial and aquatic animals and 37 species of fish, there is a lot of nature to see and enjoy. There is also a lot to protect. The park is part of Europe’s Natura 2000 network of protected breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species.
Any increase in human activity has to be tightly managed, so the request for proposals stipulated that the boats would need to be electrically propelled and have water tanks that prevent any discharge into the river. They must also moor between nightfall and daybreak.
Electric houseboats based on ‘penichette’ design
The successful bid came from the ‘Au bout du Marais’ agency and French electric boat pioneer Naviwatt. Au bout du Marais was created specifically to manage the electric houseboats operation. It is the third arm of two long time eco tourism operators in La Rochelle that go back to 2008. Coincidentally, that is about the same time that Naviwatt launched their first electric boat, the Zephyr – which in 2009 was the the first electric boat exhibited at the Paris Motor Show.
For the riverboats, Naviwatt and architect architect Hugo Lauras decided to create an electric penichette – a canal boat design from the 1970s based on classic French river barges. Named the ZenRiver, the model is 13.1 meters long (43 ft) with a beam of 4.1 meters (13.5 ft) allowing plenty of room for 12 passengers and beds to sleep six.
The distinctive long bow has an open air lounge connected to the pilot’s cockpit and kitchen area. There are large windows everywhere, providing lots of light and a spacious feel. Aft of the kitchen is an enclosed sleeping area (including head) with a small deck at the stern. The hulls are durable, lightweight aluminum with wooden cladding in the ‘house’ area.
Each boat is powered by a 10kW inboard motor with 43 kWh lithium-ion battery. With a draft of 0.8m (31 inches) everything is designed for the penichettes to glide along the river with absolute minimum intrusion by noise or propeller wash. Top speed is 10 km/h (6 mph) with autonomy of up to 10 hours.
The battery system is segmented and has two different charging systems. The packs used for the ‘hotel load’ – kitchen, lights, etc – can be charged through the boat’s rooftop solar panels. The packs for the motor are charged through shore connection.
Available for trips from 2 to 7 days
The Park Sèvre Niortaise river has built charging stations along the Sévre Nortiaise as part of a larger project to improve the overall navigational experience. There are now remote controls to operate the 7 locks between the towns of Nirot and Marans and new signalling has also been installed along the route.
The electric houseboats are at the leading edge of the ‘Tourisme Fluvestre’ (river tourism) program initiated by France’s Voies navigable du France (Waterways of France) department. The goal is to promote ecotourism and cultural discovery by connecting river navigation with onshore activities like cycling and hiking.
The boats can be rented for trips of 2 to 7 days with prices ranging from 600 to 2,100 Euros. Contact Au bout du Marais for more information.