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The First Boat Pays Your Dues Forward (Blog)

I’ve been asked many times about my introduction to boat ownership. Recently, in dumping old files into a recycling bin, I discovered the answer to that question. I found yellow flimsies, copies of a magazine feature I had written for the Seattle Times in 1975.
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I’ve been asked many times about my introduction to boat ownership. Recently, in dumping old files into a recycling bin, I discovered the answer to that question. I found yellow flimsies, copies of a magazine feature I had written for the Seattle Times in 1975. Here it is: the story of my first boat. Normally, when you want a little boat for a bit of fishing or just for putting around, you simply go out and buy a boat and go fishing or putting around.

That’s what I thought I was doing in October, 1971. But that’s not what happened.

First of all, some explanation: My wife and I and our children live in a house that’s nearly 50 years old, our family cars are 12 and 13 years old, we once owned a 25-year-old pick-up truck and most of the furniture in our old house is older than the house.


So it was to be expected that our little, round-bottomed boat was built by a craftsman, by hand, with oak and cedar and teak, in 1944. No plastic, no chrome, no upholstered seats: the kind of things one finds too often in fishing-and-putting around boats these days.

It was equipped with an air-cooled inboard gasoline engine, the kind normally found on garden tractors and air compressors. It had board seats, plywood decking above the cedar planks and a half-cabin arrangement called a cuddy squeezed into its 16 feet.

It was an emotional purchase. I wanted it and bought it without dickering. I took it hook, line and sinker.

Our maiden trip aboard the boat (the first without the previous owner along) was out of a Mukilteo boathouse. Three hundred yards off shore the shear pin on the propeller shaft broke, leaving us stalled in the water. An obliging couple–in a plastic-and-chrome boat -- towed us home.

Pin fixed, the second trip was on Burrows Bay, Near Anacortes. The engine ran beautifully for about 10 minutes before dying. I wound the rope around the pulley and cranked the heavy old thing into life. It ran two or three minutes and died. I cranked, it ran, it died. And again and again and again. Finally, we rowed back, put the boat on the shiny new trailer and towed it home.

Air-cooled gasoline engines are simple things and only obvious things go wrong. I sat in the bow of the boat one day, as it rested on the trailer in the driveway, wondering what simple thing had gone wrong. I looked aft, across the top of the engine, at the gasoline tank under the rear deck. It WAS simple.

The Norwegian handyman who installed the tractor engine also had put a 10-gallon gasoline tank under the rear deck. Unfortunately, the top of the gravity-feed carburetor on the engine was in line with the midpoint for the fuel tank. The effect was that a half full tank was empty as far as the engine was concerned.

It had “gone dry” on the boat and the engine quit, although the tank had been half full. The gentle rocking of the boat allowed some fuel to run to the engine to let it start and run a few minutes.

That problem solved (and it turned out to be about the easiest problem we encountered) by filling the tank, we set out again. The shear pin sheared and we rowed back. The next time we made a round trip along Burrows Bay to Deception Pass. Exultation. It worked!

The next time out the shear pin sheared again. Another trip, the last of the summer, the rubber drive belt broke. I banged my knuckles and burned my wrist while I struggled to replace the belt as the boat bobbed in the swells of Burrows Bay.

That first summer we made half a dozen trips out onto the water. We came back under power once, by oars a couple of times and under tow (behind plastic-and-chrome beauties) a time or two.

Angry and ashamed, I tried to sell the damned thing. It turned out no one wanted it the way I had wanted it.

The next season the inspiration was to throw out the sturdy old Wisconsin (no one else could start it, in addition to everything else) and the outboard motor lower unit that had been rigged as a gear box. I did that–threw it out–and set out to buy a proper marine engine for the little cedar boat. It would have been easier and cheaper to buy a new V8 engine for my 12-year-old station wagon.

Few people own boats like mine. It’s a Poulsbo type: experts declare it to be all sorts of other things, from a Bristol Bay fishing boat to a Columbia River gillnettter. There’s not much market for inboard engines for them and so manufacturers don’t build many. It didn’t take long to discover that proper marine engines – one cylinder, water cooled, electric starting and equipped with a clutch and reverse gear – were available for between $900 and $1,200 about two years ago.

With the second summer of ownership half gone and the boat high and dry on the trailer, we began a search for used marine engines of the proper kind. Finally, we found one. It was offered for sale by a man who lived about eight blocks from our home. He wanted $125 but accepted $100. We took it home

The motor ran beautifully the day I’d decided to test it before beginning installation. Then it quit as the magneto broke into one more piece than the manufacturer had provided. We learned later that the proper little engine, made by a well-known marine engine firm (whose name will be taken in vain later), was about 25 years old, at least. The magneto bore the signature of Thomas A. Edison in Bakelite and, as I should have guessed, hadn’t been manufactured for decades.

Summer came and went, but the boat didn’t. There was no putting around or fishing that year. The search for a magneto continued while dust settled onto the deck and into the void where the Wisconsin had been.

One firm in Seattle sold marine engines made by the maker of mine. The parts man there said no, you can’t buy a replacement magneto. The parts man said the manufacturer back east had an adapter kit which allowed the use of a standard magneto available in a dozen stores in Seattle.

He wasn’t much interested in ordering one. So I wrote the manufacturer last January. The company hasn’t answered yet. I telephoned and found the national parts office eager to help. They would send out all the information for the adapter kit. But they didn’t.

The search dragged on through marine supply houses, machine shops, junk yards, boat dealers and magneto firms. With no fishing or putting around we built an addition on our shack at the beach, moved and took a vacation out of town away from cedar boats and busted motors. We hauled the boat out of the carport, tipped it gently from the trailer, sanded the bottom and put on new copper paint. We painted the topsides the way they paint state ferries – green and white.

As you have guessed, this story has a happy ending. I wouldn’t be writing this if it came out sad in the last paragraph. The beginning of the happy ending occurred last spring.

I had put the engine and fritzed magneto in my car and had begun making the rounds of machine shops and engine dealers hoping to find someone who would adapt the gearbox from my marine engine to an air-cooled engine. The trail led to George in a small California town. I may name the boat for him.

One engine dealer gave up a sale by urging me not to junk the marine engine. He recommended I try such-and-such firm, well known in magneto circles but one I had missed.

Such-and-such couldn’t find a magneto to fit my engine. In fact it had no record anywhere that showed it ever had been built or equipped with the Tom Edison magneto. Nevertheless, the shop manager suggested calling George, who had revived a dead magneto for the owner of another old boat.

George was beautiful. If only the world were full of Georges. I wrote him once and we talked briefly on the telephone. I airmailed the wreckage to him. Three days later I received a working magneto. George had used the drive gear and mounting plate from my magneto and adapted them to a standard magneto he had in his shop. It made the antique engine run like new.

The engine is in place. It putts beautifully.

The first few trips onto the water this summer the whole family was uneasy and nervous. We all expected something to quit or break or blow up. Nothing has and now we’re relaxed, enjoying our antique boat and antique motor. We sort of enjoy being stared at by owners of plastic-and-chrome boats.


We’ve done a lot of putting around this year. Fishing has been lousy. But we’ve learned to be patient.

(PS: I don’t know why I failed to identify the engine maker in the original article. It was a 5hp Kermath Sea Pup, a rather famous little marine engine.

(I didn’t say much about the builder, either, probably because I didn’t know. Poulsbo boats first were built by Ronald Young, beginning in the early 1930s, and then with his son, Gordon, in Poulsbo, a small town with a strong Norwegian community across Puget Sound from Seattle. His small fishing boats are famous for classic styling, performance and durability. That last was built in 1965 and only a few dozen remain. The cuddy on my Poulsbo boat likely was added by one of its early owners.

(I sold the Poulsbo boat a few years later to a young couple who took her to Olga, on Orcas Island. I went there a while ago naively hoping to find her on a buoy or at a dock. But she was not there.)