Chances are good Evel Knievel is responsible for making your houseboat easier to maneuver…at least in a round about sort of way. For most houseboaters that thought probably never entered your mind as you were coming into your slip to dock, but if you’re one of the estimated 3,500 houseboats with thrusters from HydraNautics, it’s not as far fetched as you might think.
On October 25, 1975 Evel Knievel, the death-defying daredevil, successfully jumped 14 Greyhound buses on a motorcycle at Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati, Ohio. You’re probably wondering what that has to do with thrusters, but it’s actually quite clear. If he didn’t come to Kentucky as Evel Knievel’s helicopter pilot, Dick Gragert probably never discovers the houseboating lifestyle and the joys of houseboat ownership, which eventually led him to starting HydraNautics, his own thruster business. So thank you Evel Knievel.
As the story goes, Gragert got into the flying business after serving as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War where he received two Purple Hearts and a Distinguished Flying Cross. He came to Kentucky as Evel Knievel’s helicopter pilot, but decided to stay after the stunt performer and entertainer did the jump on Kings Island. Soon Gragert’s interest began to shift from flying to boating as he evolved into an avid barefoot water skier.
“I was wearing out boat drivers going to the lake,” Gragert reminisced. “They only wanted to get out of the sun and into the A.C., so I thought having a houseboat would be the solution. I ended up trading an airplane to Joe Sharpe, the owner at the time of Sumerset Houseboats. I was getting everything on it and I asked about thrusters and they said, ‘Dick you’re a helicopter pilot. You don’t need them and they’re not very good anyway.’” And just like that, Gragert was on the path to starting HydraNautics.
From there it was off to the races as he developed thrusters for his own houseboat. First, his neighbors saw and wanted them, then friends of friends, and soon HydraNautics was taking on a life of its own with Gragert’s hard work keeping it soaring as the houseboat market boomed.
HydraNautics has been a leader in houseboat hydraulic bow and stern thrusters for over 30 years, and it's easy to see why. Gragert created a powerful hydraulic bow thruster that can be added to your houseboat while it's in the slip, saving anyone who doesn't have factory installed bow thrusters a lot of trouble and money from needing their boat to be hauled out. These bolt-on thrusters can be mounted to each side of the houseboat, with the propellers far enough towards the stern and high enough from the bottom so you don't have to worry about beaching.
One of the primary benefits of selecting HydraNautics thrusters over other thruster systems is the retrofit can be done within a day's time—without having to pull your houseboat out of the water. Gragert, who is best known in the industry as the Thruster Man, hits the road with his wife Jane on a regular basis to install these systems throughout the country.
Gragert can recall any number of stories about his time in the houseboating industry, but one of his favorites is from a simple trip to install a thruster on a houseboat in Florida. It was a routine trip. Gragert met with the owner shortly before he disappeared elsewhere and hopped on the houseboat to get to work.
As he worked on installing his thrusters onto the houseboat he could see eyes looking at him and felt things brushing up against his legs, so he hurried up and did the job and got out of the water.
“When they guy got back I asked him, ‘Are there alligators in here?’” Gragert recalled. “And he says, ‘Oh yeah, we never get in the water around here.’ That was nice of him to say after the fact. He also told me how his mother feeds chickens to them off the back of the boat. I don’t know how that guy thought I was going to get those thrusters on there without getting in the water.”
Alligators aren’t the only oddities Gragert has come across during his time installing thrusters. He’s come across plenty of other animals, such as snakes, and any odd number of situations. However, he has never had a problem getting the job finished and pleasing his customers.
If you've purchased a used boat or launched a custom model without these handy docking aids and find you're now in the market for thrusters, HydraNautics is worthy of a closer look. Gragert understands all too well that retrofitting thrusters can create a host of logistical issues—the biggest one probably being cost. At an installation, the thruster expert sticks around to ensure you're fully satisfied with your new thruster system before heading out.
“We offer a performance guarantee,” explains Gragert. “We won't leave the dock until the houseboat owner has tested the system and is satisfied with it.”
When HydraNautics first came on the scene, it was a new design. Hydraulic-driven thrusters weren't the standard. Most systems were electric and could only handle shorter bursts before overheating. Throughout the years, HydraNautics has evolved its technology to effectively utilize generator power to run thruster systems. Other types of hydraulic systems run a load on the generator constantly. This full-time load draws power anytime it's running—even when you're anchored out in a cove or underway. In some systems as much as 3kw of power may be wasted, which is roughly 25 percent of the power if you're running a 12kw generator.
HydraNautics' clutch-driven system solves this problem and simultaneously offers other benefits. Aside from being able to sustain longer bursts, HydraNautics' belt-driven clutch system only pulls power from the generator while the thruster is in use. This clutch drive eliminates a constant load on the generator and not only saves energy but fuel and wear and tear on your systems as well.
A True Believer
A common saying is that in order to be a good salesman you have to believe in your product. Perhaps this explains why Gragert has always blown the competition out of the water with his HydraNautics thrusters.
“I would go out to install them I would tell them, ‘Look. If when I fire them up you’re not just tickled to death and it isn’t better than you thought it was going to be then I’ll take them off and go home and you don’t owe me anything.’ I’ve always said that and in 30 years I’ve never taken them off and gone home.”
Both Is Better
Gragert strongly recommends his stern thrusters to houseboat owners looking to add a thruster system. That's because his product is unique from other systems. HydraNautics' stern thruster is a tubeless thruster and offers more strength and leverage than the typical stern thruster. The design is so powerful that it actually enables the boat to turn while running at full speed.
When asked which type of the thruster is best, Gragert is very specific about clarifying his recommendation.
“Having both HydraNautics bow and stern thrusters is the ultimate setup for being able to comfortably maneuver and dock your houseboat in difficult conditions. But as great as our bow thruster is, if I was forced to choose one or the other, I wouldn't want to be without the stern because of the way it reacts and does things for you the other brands simply can't do,” said Gragert. “On the other hand, if we are talking about our competitor's thrusters which are a tube style, I would recommend the bow because you would be very disappointed if you chose the stern only.”
Before Or After
In addition to on-site installation of existing boats, HydraNautics also works directly with manufacturers to install thruster systems on new customs as well. Even the best captain can get into serious trouble trying to navigate a houseboat on a windy day. Because of its shallow draft and height, a houseboat behaves differently than other types of vessels—it's just like a sail when the wind kicks up. And Mother Nature isn't kind when your expensive boat is headed straight for the dock or another vessel.
Because Gragert has always been a houseboater, he understands the industry and the needs of houseboaters better than anyone else. This Kentucky-based owner realizes that saving energy, gas and wear and tear are important elements of building the ideal houseboat system.