The Working Waterfront

Rolling on the river aboard electric-powered whale boat

Former commercial mariner offers scenic rides from Belfast

Tom Groening
Posted 2018-09-27
Last Modified 2018-09-27

Whether it’s aboard a restored schooner or a retrofit lobster boat, there are plenty of opportunities for visitors and locals to enjoy the sublime experience of being on the saltwater in Maine. It may be for a few hours or a few days, but businesses abound offering such outings.

Channing Boswell has found another option: a leisurely cruise up a tidal river.

This summer, Boswell has been offering rides from Belfast Harbor’s Thompson Wharf up the Passagassawakeag River—or, as the locals call it, the Passy—in his customized boat. The vessel is a former U.S. Navy whale boat, and it is powered with an electric motor, which complements the quiet nature of the trip.

Boswell, 47, is a professional mariner with 22 years of experience as a boat captain. The California Maritime Academy graduate holds a 1,600-ton master’s license. A dozen years ago, he and his wife bought a place in nearby Morrill, and they finally moved to Maine from Florida this year.

When he decided he wanted to operate a tour boat, his choice was a former U.S. Navy whale boat.

“They make all kinds of tour boats, but they’re ugly,” he said. “I bought it on e-Bay,” last December, he added, explaining that the navy has used whale boats—so named because they closely resemble the small boats that whalers used in the 19th century to chase their prey—for decades.

“They used them to rescue airmen, shuttle guys to ships,” he said. The modern version is made of fiberglass.

The 26-foot open boat had a diesel engine, which he removed and replaced with an electric motor.

“You just charge it like a golf cart. It’s got six 8D batteries.” The motor can run at full-throttle for two-and-a-half hours, he said, “but the way I run it, it can go for 20 hours.”

The hull was built in 1987, and it draws 30-inches of water.

Boswell cut out the center console and moved it back, so he can sit high enough at the wheel to see where he’s headed but not block passenger views.

He’s added a roof, and vinyl window panels can be rolled down to keep out rain and wind.

The boat is licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry up to six passengers, but he’s working with regulators to raise the limit to a dozen. At issue is how long he can operate all systems, given the electric power.

So far, the boat ride has been a hit. Passengers have included families with small children, people in their 50s, and a group of friends booking the boat for a birthday celebration. Passengers can bring coolers with beverages and food to enjoy. Prices for individuals start at $25

Boswell and three other Belfast-based tour boats—a sailboat, harbor shuttle, and lobster boat—are working cooperatively, each agreeing to offer passengers different experiences. The operators refer customers to each other when they are booked up.

On a recent warm and sunny morning, we left the dock and headed upriver. Shortly after passing under the Route 1 bridge, the river widens and offers views of houses and fields. We see a seal, and then Boswell spots one of the eagles he and his passengers have been seeing, He opens a container with military grade binoculars, and we see where the eagles have a nest.

Though we are not far from Route 1, “It’s a different world,” he says, and indeed, it is quiet. The river changes dramatically with the tides, too: “It’s like two rivers,” he says. 

Thompson Wharf is a couple hundred yards up river from the city’s public landing. For more information, see: or call 239-849-5668.

The view of the Passy River from aboard the Carretta.