Former Navy whaleboat outfitted for eco-tours in Belfast

New business offers another inexpensive way to get on the water
By Ethan Andrews | Jul 12, 2018
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Channing Boswell drives his electric-powered whaleboat Carretta during one of his eco-tour excursions up the Passagassawakeag River.

Belfast — The Passagassawakeag River, which empties into Belfast Bay, is teaming with wildlife and interesting nature features, but until recently, seeing it required owning a boat small enough to get under the footbridge.

On July 4, Channing Boswell, a native of Florida who spends part of the year in Morrill, started taking passengers on sleepy rides up the river in a 26-foot electric motorboat called Carretta.

Carretta Carretta is the scientific name of the loggerhead sea turtle. Carretta the boat started as a launch for the Navy replenishment ship U.S.S. Detroit. Boswell was splitting time between Pine Island, Fla., and Morrill when he picked it up several owners later. He stripped it back to its somewhat unique double-ended whaleboat hull, replaced the diesel engine with a 20-horsepower battery-powered electric motor, moved the helm all the way aft so he could run the boat like a gondola driver, built a canopy to cover the deck, hauled the boat by trailer to Maine and started Carretta EcoTours.

The electric power supports the tagline of the business: "Comfortable, Quiet, Zero-emissions – See Nature without Leaving a Mark." At the dock before a recent trip, Boswell stopped to point out that the motor was running because there was no discernible sound or vibration.

"It's just a big golf cart, basically," he said.

The absence of motor noise allows the boat to come closer to skittish fauna without scaring them away. When the wind is low, as it often is on the river, and at Boswell's usual cruising speed of 4 ½ knots, the boat could be mistaken for drifting with the current.

During test runs in Florida, Boswell said he had to pay close attention so as not to hit manatees.

"You have to go real slow," he said. "They can't hear, then all of a sudden they freak out because you're right on them." He likened it to surprising a cow by jumping on its back.

Carretta docks at Thompson's Wharf. Cruises cost $25 per person, run several times a day and last about an hour and 15 minutes. The boat is also available for private charters in the early morning and evening.

Boswell's background is in boats — in Florida, he shuttled divers to and from the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico — but he's knowledgeable enough about wildlife to point out the sights.

On a recent trip up the river, a kingfisher buzzed across the river 20 yards ahead of the boat, cormorants hung out on a low-hanging drape of utility lines at old upper bridge, not budging as the boat slipped beneath them. Near City Point, Boswell jerked a hand off the helm to point out a bald eagle, its white tail visible from a distance, disappearing into the high branches of a pine on the bank.

There are glimpses of the Rail Trail on the largely undeveloped west bank. Along the east side of the river, the trees and vegetation are pulled back at the shoreline to reveal solid rock ledge.

Boswell made a handshake agreement with the owners of another new boat business, The Back and Forth — they don't take people up the river and he doesn't tour them around the bay. He plans to stay on the water well into the fall, at least through the foliage season. Carretta has plastic curtains that can be rolled down to keep the wind out when it gets cooler. But like many of the birds hanging around the river this summer, Boswell won't be sticking around for the winter.

"Once the leaves are gone, time to go back home, I guess," he said. "Time to go back to Florida."

For more information and online booking, visit carrettaecotours.com.

The 26-foot retrofitted Navy whaleboat Carretta makes several trips a day from Thompson's Wharf up the Passagassawakeag River. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
Channing Boswell shows the batteries that allow his retrofitted Navy whaleboat Carretta to travel almost silently, making it ideal for viewing birds and other wildlife from the water. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
Belfast's new eco-tour boat, Carretta, heads up the Passagassawakeag River July 7. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
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