Tales from Geezer Boatworks

by Paul Browne
Geezer Boatworks

The Pelican Pete Stories
Part I - Setting Out

The other day I got thinking about stories about cruising aboard boats, especially stories from older books. Some of those old writings conveyed a real feeling of adventure, even for ordinary coastal cruises in sheltered waters. And that started me thinking about the effects of trips in small boats, and how the experience can be altogether different from that in larger, more luxurious vessels. Well a few years back I bought a converted lifeboat from a fellow up the St. John’s River. I figured that qualified as a smaller boat these days, so I thought I’d write about some of our adventures.

The General Brock

Cut the Lines Loose

Pete stopped on the dock and looked at the boat. “I don’t know Dad, looks in pretty rough shape,” he said. Pete had come down to help me take the General home. “The main thing is the engine, Pete. It sounded OK when he started it,” I answered, “Let’s get this oil changed.” The “General Brock” was a thirty-five year old lifeboat. The hull was 24 foot of riveted steel with an outboard rudder, and the engine was a four cylinder 40 horse Perkins diesel. The General was double-ended but apple-cheeked; pointy both ends, but only at the last possible moment. The previous owner found the boat looking sad on the hard at some Navy auction. He put in a low bid and to his surprise he had a boat; nobody else bid. He was a good carpenter, and he did a good job on a low cabin forward, and a nice cockpit aft. But that was a few years back. Now the paint was shot. The bimini was torn and black with mildew. We scrubbed as best we could before setting off, but the General still looked….well, lets say he looked sort of disreputable, like an older guy who had had the world by the tail twenty years ago, but was now a little down on his luck. But we'd change that when we got home. Sandblast the hull, fill a few holes, fit a new wheel, some paint and varnish, a new bimini. He'd be a gentleman again.

So a couple of hours later Pete and I backed the General out of his berth. We had over 500 miles to get home, first north along the St. John’s River to Jacksonville, then south along the east coast of Florida, west through the Okeechobee, then north again along the west coast to Tampa. “Let’s see what he’ll do,” I said, and I pushed the throttle forward. Pete had his eye on the GPS, “Five knots, five and a half, six, six and a half, seven…Oooo seven point one, two.” “That’s all she wrote, Pete,” I hollered over the racket, “Look at that trench we’re digging in the river!” Every rivet in the General’s hull was rattling and the wheel was pulling hard to starboard. I pulled the throttle back. “What’s that, Pete?” “Six, five point eight,” he answered. “There,” I said, “That’s about it if we want to keep our sanity.” Pete didn’t say anything, but he did take another wistful look at the GPS. Such are the ways of double-ended displacement hulls.

A Baptism

It was late in the day when we entered Lake George. We figured on stopping at a spring part way up the lake. But it was full of beer-swilling rednecks in fizzboats, so we pushed on. I thought we could reach the top of the lake before dark, but I hadn't planned well enough. When night came, we found ourselves in cold rain, stiff wind and a substantial chop, an hour from shelter. Our little cruiser had no windshield. Pete took the wheel, reading the compass with a flashlight, trying to duck the spray coming over the bow. I read the chart and GPS from below. He wouldn't let me take a turn at the wheel. "No sense our both getting wet," he said, water dripping from his nose and chin. We dropped the hook right where the GPS told us to, never saw a light or the shore. Pete came below soaked to the skin, shivering and smiling.

The morning dawned clear, calm and cold. We were no more than a hundred yards from shore, tucked into a little bay like we were supposed to be - magic thing, GPS. Pete seemed different, more solid, no longer a kid at all. He hadn't changed overnight of course, but the way I thought of him had.

Fuel Troubles

Pete and I settled into a comfortable routine. Up at dawn, haul anchor and get underway. Chow down on some breakfast while we slid down river. Then we’d keep a lookout for a spot to grab some lunch, some ice, and some fixings for supper. We’d get fifty or sixty miles in, then we’d find a sheltered spot to drop the hook for the night. Two or three days went by like that, one blending into the next. We passed surprisingly empty riverbanks, slid over shallows and under railway and highway bridges. We chugged through the bustling port of Jacksonville, dodging the freighters and tugs. And around Jacksonville, we ran into salt water. We could see and hear the difference in the way the wake foamed. Just past the city, we joined the Intracoastal Waterway and turned south. The General’s old engine never missed a beat, but that was about to change. I guess it was predictable, but we didn’t know enough then to expect it.

About a day south of Jacksonville, we stopped for some fuel. When we filled the tank, we stirred up ten years worth of sediment. Fifteen minutes after we left the fuel dock, the General started to slow down. I upped the throttle - nothing. Five more minutes and the engine was pretty well at an idle, so we stopped, opened hatches, and started to poke around. It turned out that the previous owner had had the good sense to install a strainer ahead of the fuel filter, and it was plugged with black goo. We cleaned it out, bled the engine and started off again. Half-hour later, we were stopped, same thing. Well, after a couple more cycles we knew we had to do something else, but what? Supper, that was the obvious course of action. Supper, a little rum and coke, a good night’s sleep, and the answer would come in the morning. Given a viable choice between supper and decisive action, the true sailor knows what to do.

Sure enough, next day after breakfast, Pete and I were in an inventive frame of mind. The lazarette yielded up a plastic funnel, and a five-gallon jerry can. A local bait shop sold us an outboard motor fuel line with a priming bulb. The hanging locker provided a coat hanger, and the galley donated a roll of paper towels. We spliced into the diesel fuel line and pulled it through a new hole in the deck into the cockpit. The coat hanger wire got bent into a spiral inside the funnel, to make a spacer. Inside of that went a folded paper towel. The squeeze bulb filled the funnel filter with dirty fuel, after which it drained into the jerry can. And the engine sucked the filtered fuel out of the can. So did it work? Sure did. The black crap that those paper towels collected! About 4 funnels of diesel and the build-up was enough to pretty well stop the flow. We went three hundred miles squeezing and straining one half hour out of every two. We used up four rolls of paper towels. Pete and I developed forearms like Popeye’s. And the engine never missed a beat for the rest of the trip. Well, except when it got rough in Lake Okeechobee, but that’s another story.

…to be continued