TBThursday: The World’s 1st electric yacht tender

While doing research for his authoritative book Electric Boats and Ships: A History, (buy it here from Amazon) author Kevin Desmond was going through the archives of the Bedford Estates at Woburn Abbey, England and writes that he discovered

An sktech from the late 19th century of a British Lord with top hat and beard
9th Duke of Bedford, by Carlo Pellegrini, 1874

…perhaps the most detailed documentation about any electric boat during this early period. It concerns Electra, the world’s first electric launch tender.

In these Plugboats ‘Throwback Thursday’ posts we connect some of these great stories from the past with appropriate electric boat and ship events today. And reading through the history of the Electra, there are some definite connections.

The 1885 electric ‘Elektra’

The Electra was a tender for the ship of Francis Charles Hastings Russell, the 9th Duke of Bedford, a man keen on technical innovation. He was also a man of many titles, his full list of designations included him being the 9th Marquess of Tavistock, 13th Earl of Bedford, 13th Baron Russell, 11th Baron Russell of Thornhaugh and 9th Baron Howland.

In 1883 sold his yacht Claymore and purchased the Registered Steam Ship Northumbria (the large engraving above). He promptly had it outfitted with many of the latest technical wonders of the electric age including incandescent lamps supplied by the Anglo-American Brush Electric Lighting Corporation. They had been patented by one Mr. Thomas Alva Edison only 4 years before.

When it came time to order a tender for the ship, the Duke was equally adventurous and contracted with the Electric Power Storage Company, of  Greater Winchester Street, London for an “Electric Launch fitted with bells and motor”

The bill, issued December 15 1885 along with the note that everything was delivered ‘complete as arranged’ is perhaps the first invoice ever for an electric boat. This outrageous price of £303.11 of course included the fees for “2 x 80 amp plug switches for connecting bells to present lighting leads”.

It may also be that the Electra was one of the first electric boats designed to be used as a tender for a larger vessel.

Flash forward to today and some yacht owners are equally keen on having the latest propulsion technologies available on their tenders. For many of them the attraction is not just having the latest and best, but also that when their super yachts are moored in ecologically sensitive areas, they can explore nearby waters on a smaller vessel that doesn’t impact those waters – and its inhabitants – with noise and exhaust.

Of course there are also some of these tenders that are just plain flashy. Take a look at this Plugboats post about the AVON ElectroJet 450, a 15 foot tender that can go 30 knots. The first are set to be delivered in May. For pure elegance, you might want to take a look at a modern tender with the name Elektra (below). This absolutely gorgeous boat is from Patterson Boatworks in England. Motor Boat and Yachting wrote about her: “you can put your tongue back in your mouth now because this glorious launch has far more to her than jaw dropping looks”.

a wooden 1930s style boat painted robins egg blue goes through the water
The Elektra electric tender by Patterson Boatworks, Lake Windemere, England

But let’s move on, just as the Northumbria and Electra did. The Electra had a few adventures on the Thames river in London, showing the steam and sailing boats of the day what she could do, but for our purposes to day we’re going to travel with her to Amsterdam.

The Elecktra visits Amsterdam

On our trip we will be accompanied by the Duke’s friend, also an electric aficionado, the 4th Lord Sudeley. You may know him better as Charles Douglas Richard Hanbury-Tracy. So yes, Francis Charles Hastings Russell, the 9th Duke of Bedford, lent Charles Douglas Richard Hanbury-Tracy, the 4th Lord Sudeley his yacht and electric tender, which he took to Amsterdam.

It is difficult to imagine a better way to see Amsterdam,“ wrote Sudeley to Hastings on July 4th, 1887 “and I never enjoyed a trip so much. We went up the Amstel River about 4 miles and stopped at a café at about 5.30 for coffee.’

‘As we went through the canals and under the bridges, the astonishment and amusement of the natives were very great. In no place is it possible to conceive a better opportunity for testing an electric boat.’

‘The complete power you have over her enables you to go at a considerable speed without the slightest danger and to glide between the barges with perfect ease and safety.

Indeed, this pleasure of cruising the canals of Amsterdam has returned to the city after it adopted a policy in 2013 dictating that every commercial ship on the city’s canals must be zero-emission by 2020 or 2025, depending on its size.

Read about today’s electrified saloon boats of Amsterdam 

An elegant wooden boat with a canopy with drinks set out on a bar

In this feature from Plugboats, we look at classic canal saloon boats that have been electrified to meet the new rules. These boats would have been used to transport the well to do of Amsterdam in the early 20th century. Another name for these boats is ‘notary boats’ or executive boats’ as many of them were used by the boards of Dutch companies either to provide board members with an elegant commute or for special board meetings. Today they are rented as tour boats and for dinners and special cocktail parties and other occasions. And the quietness and elegance seems to be as well appreciated as that of the Elektra. A sample comment from TripAdvisor (5 star overall) about the Admiral Heijn (pictured above) says “We had a great time. The boat is beautiful – polished wood, quiet, comfortable, indoor and outdoor seating. We had a wonderful and quiet (e-boat!!) 90 minutes on the canals of Amsterdam.“

We’ll leave the last word to the 4th Lord Sudeley, however, who wrote to the 9th Duke of Bedford after his Amsterdam excursion:

“I think you had better take into Your Grace’s serious consideration taking a cruise into the Mediterranean this winter starting in September and of course your humble servant to go with you!”

Yours most gratefully, Sudeley.


Cover of the book Electric Boats and Ships: A HistoryExcerpts for this Throwback Thursday are taken from Electric Boats and Ships: A History by Kevin Desmond. You can purchase the book on Amazon in hard copy or for Kindle.    


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