I went down to help a couple of young kids help launch a small powerboat at the local ramp recently, which led me to thinking about my own youth and boating, in general.
The 'Bilge Bug' bit me, hard, when I was a 13 year old kid. Dad worked in a Lincoln-Mercury dealer as a body & fender man, and I spent my Saturdays from the time I'd been about 6 going to the shop and watching, learning and being a typical kid asking the guys "Why...?" (and being a nuisance!)
Anyway, one Saturday morning when I was 13, an insurance adjuster snagged my Dad and me. He knew I liked to tear things apart--I was always VERY good at that--and put them back together again. (Not always so good at that part...'Hey, Dad! I don't know what's next.") Well, the insurance guy says, "I have a brand new Merc outboard motor that got sunk about two minutes after the guy launched his new boat... Long story, I'll skip this part. Anyway, the engine had gone swimming at Long Beach Marine Stadium the very first time it had gotten wet. The insurance company just bought the guy a whole new boat. That was cheaper than fixing the other brand new boat.
The adjuster sold us that motor for $20 bucks. Bear in mind that this was 1961 and twenty bucks was a good chunk of change. We took it home, and built a 2x4 rack to put the thing on. Then Dad says, "Knock yourself out. I don't know a thing about outboards, so you're on your own."
I went to the library and found a book about outboards and read it. While I was reading, I tore the engine apart, being careful, because I wanted it to run again. The rings had rusted to the cylinder walls, naturally, so it took a little judicious beating to get them out. I mowed a few lawns, washed a few cars, whatever, and bought new rings, a gasket set and some other stuff and put the engine back together. I didn't mention this, but it was a 75 HP Merc. One of the old, pretty ones with the tall, black housing and chrome strips on it.
Anyway, I got it all back together without any left over parts (one of my major problems with most things!), and it was time to test it. Dad comes up with a 55 gallon steel drum from work, and we lift the motor up using the garage rafters and lowered it into the barrel, and the jury rigged mount.
Like I said, Dad didn't know anything about outboards. All I really knew was the mechanical part that I'd just learned. That made for an interesting first run.
We filled the drum up with water. Mom came out to watch. The next door neighbor came over to watch. My best buddy rode his bicycle over to watch. We had a nice little crowd in the garage when I hit the START switch.
Whine, whine, whine, sputter, ROAR!
Do you have any idea how far a 75 HP outboard can launch 50 gallons or so of water? I guess I didn't mention that this was one of the old style Mercs. It didn't have a transmission. When the engine started, the prop spun. Period. Oh, yeah. I guess I didn't mention we'd put the prop on the motor, too.
Well, the engine roared, emptied the drum all over all of us, and I managed to get it shut off before I wrecked it again!
I admit I still remember laughing at several things that day. The look on Dad's face--amazement that the thing actually ran, and surprise at the speed with which it emptied that drum. My Mom, who's carefully coiffed hair 'melted' into a soggy mess. Our little mutt, Dutchie, who ran from the racket like someone had shot at him. Finally, my buddy who was laughing so hard he almost fell down.
Dad's only comment was, "I'll be d******. It runs."
So we had this fire breathing Merc and nothing to put it on. Dad, always eager to find ways of keeping me busy and out of mischief, brings home a set of Glen L plans for a little 15 foot, flatbottom runabout that could be built with almost nothing but plywood and fiberglass. No trick, since Glen was in Bellflower, California, which was where we lived, too.
Pop gives me the plans, and it was off to my room where I put on a stack of 45 RPM records on the old Admiral record player, and buried myself in the plans.
It took me a week to get a pretty good handle on the plans. The following Saturday, after work (and I really was working by then. I could remove and replace bumpers, fenders, hoods, etc., with little more than an careful eye and helpful word from Dad), we took the old International Harvester pickup to the lumber yard and bought some of the lumber to start building the boat.
Mom's beautiful 1959 Mercury car got evicted from the garage to make room for the new project.
I spent the next year and a half working in the garage when I could. Dad helped when he could, but he didn't know much about woodworking and not much more about boats, in general, even though he'd served in the Navy during WWII. But he helped me by encouragement, keeping me company, and making me quit when I was getting mad (not hard to accomplish. 1/2 Irish, 1/4 German and 1/4 Cherokee!), frustrated, or just plain tired. Poor Dutchie, who was 'my' dog had learned to stay near the garage door if he didn't want fiberglass resin in his fur, but he kept me good company when Dad wasn't there. My Mom was not happy about the whole thing. Dust. Rude chemical smells. Loud noises. Things I learned from my Boatswain's Mate Dad's repertoire of things you wouldn't say in church coming out of my mouth as the batch of resin I'd mixed went off too fast.
Finally, thanks to Dad's welding skills, a trailer was built from this and that, and the boat was turned right-side up. Quite a feat, and I'm pretty sure the garage rafters were never built to carry the load, but they held, somehow.
Saturdays after work, Dad and I would go to Marine Stadium and other boating places so I could look at finished boats. This had a couple of effects. I got ideas about how things should look, and more importantly, I got to spend time with Pop, doing guy-things. (I didn't realize that part until many, many years later, btw.)
Hardwood was (and still is) expensive. Mow more lawns, wash and hand wax more cars. Paper routes. I did it all, because the Bilge Bug had me good. I was thoroughly infected.
Mahogany trim on the rails, a sheet of teak and holly plywood for the little foredeck area. Mahogany veneer plywood to make what you could see pretty. Lots and lots of clear lacquer. I was (and still am) better driving a spray gun than a brush. The seats frames got made and covered in resin to protect the thin plywood, and then they went into the back of the old IH pickup, and it was down to Tiajuana, where upholstery work was very, very cheap.
With the seats in place, lots of pretty wood covered with (literally) gallons of clear lacquer, and a beautiful candy-apple red paint job on the hull. (Like I said, I was handy with a spray gun), my little 15 footer was finally looking like a right proper little boat.
I spent the last couple of months before launching working to buy such things as life jackets, chrome cleats, steering and engine controls and installing them.
Finally satisfied that things were as good as we could make them, Dad and I went and fought the battle with the California DMV to get the home-built boat registered. If you've ever lived in CA, you feel my pain.
Tacky looking vinyl letters and numbers uglifying the otherwise beautiful bow of my candy red hull, it was time to put the boat in the water the very first time.
Timing was special. My birthday fell on a Saturday in late June, and the weather would be perfect. Dad and I got up, went to work, came home, and hooked the trailer up to the old Harvester and it was off to the Long Beach Marine Stadium for the launching.
I remember this ancient old guy watching me as I did my final checks, walking around and looking at every detail. I remembered the story of how I'd come by the black beauty hanging on the back of the boat, and had no intention of suffering the same fate. The old guy, who was, I remember vividly, smoking a pipe walked up to me and said, "She's beautiful."
I remember almost bursting with pride. Here's this salty looking old man telling me something I had built with my own hands was beautiful. Never before or since have I ever been so happy. I told him that I'd built her myself, and Dad just nodded, proud of me and the boat, to verify I was telling the truth.
Then the old man said something I've never forgotten. "Son, there are two kinds of people out there. There are boat owners, and there are sailors. You always want to be a sailor. Bon Voyage, and have fun." He walked back to his car and sat to watch our maiden cruise.
Everything worked perfectly. That was my 15th birthday, and I ran that little boat whenever I could until it was stolen a few months before I joined the Navy when I was 18.
The thing I remember best about all of it was the statement about boat owners and sailors. I'm the old fart now. I try to make the kids understand that if you're going to the sea, even in a little boat, you should be a sailor. It doesn't matter if you're driving a hopped up runabout like the one in my story, a day sailor, or a big boat like the 56 footer I captain now or the big sport fishing sedans my colleagues run. You can be a boater or a sailor, and it's always better to be a sailor.
Hope you've enjoyed this tale, and being the old fart that I am, I'll tell you this: There are boat owners, and there are sailors. Try to always be a sailor.
S/V Island Breeze