Pooh! A Motor-Boat!

I HAVE been reading a magazine article on “ The Joys of Small-Boat Sailing,” and it has appealed to me as few magazine articles do. I, too, have owned a small boat. I, too, have been instructed in the art of fastening a “ sheet-rope ” so that it will stay as long as it is wanted and can be let go in a hurry. I, too, have felt the stout little hull leaping and plunging beneath me like a living thing. I, too, have known the thrill that comes in what my father used to call “ a gale of wind,” when, with the canvas pulling with all its strength, and the tiller tugging like a frightened horse, she heels till the white foam hisses and flashes right over the leeward gun’l’. I am not quite sure that I have ever had a balloon jibe, but I have been hit by a squall and have held on till the mast broke. Yes, and I, too, have listened to a sweet soprano voice, singing the sweet, old-fashioned songs, while the sails rounded gently in the soft nightbreeze, and all about us the water shimmered like a sea of molten silver.

By moonlight and starlight we ’ll bound o’er the billow.

If that enthusiastic magazine writer had been perfectly frank, and had told the whole truth as well as nothing but the truth, I think I should probably have to add that I, too, have toiled slowly homeward through a long, hot summer afternoon with the help of a white-ash breeze, while the sun blazed down from a cloudless sky and up from the mirroring water, and the perspiration trickled, and the oars grew heavier and heavier, and the canvas flapped, flapped, flapped, maddeningly, from side to side, and the wind blew steadily up and down the mast. But if I felt called upon to mention these things at all I should certainly say that they were all in the game, and that I have many memories that are more disagreeable than those of the days when the wind flatted out.

I thank you, brother, you have brought it all back to me.

And yet, in spite of my gratitude, I have somewhat against you because you have spoken slightingly of one of the best friends I have ever had, and have implied that she is hardly worthy to be mentioned on the same page with sailing craft.

“Pooh! a motor-boat! . . . A seagoing trolley-car. . . . We feel the same contempt that — ” etc., etc., etc.

You hurt my feelings, brother. Really, you do. Come now, and let us reason together, and perchance I shall convince you of the error of your views.

In the first place, you admit that a motor-boat is all right if one wants to go somewhere, but you hint that no one who really loves and appreciates the water ever does want to go anywhere in particular. Well, I do. I want to go somewhere.

Seventy miles away, down the great river that flows past my town, and out on the broad North Channel of Lake Huron, a full league from any other land, there lies a horseshoe-shaped island, with rocky reefs guarding the portal of its harbor, but with fifty feet of water under your keel if you enter in by the strait gate. Once upon a time it was a fishing-station. The fishermen are gone now, but you can still lay your launch alongside their rotting wharf; and if you come in after dark, and it is too late to gather balsam for a bed, you can spread your blankets on the planks and lie there till morning. The stars will watch over you, and now and then through the long, quiet hours you will hear the lonely night-call of the waterfowl. Perhaps a rabbit will come to look for bread-crusts, or the splash of a leaping fish will break the stillness. And by and by, sooner than you expected, you will look across the glassy harbor and see the eastern sky brightening ever so little, while against it the pointed firs and the tall pine trees stand up blacker than ever. Another day is coming round the world. Presently, out of the inky silhouette of the land, and its inkier reflection in the water, faint details begin to appear — the long, straight line of the beach; the white stems of the birches; dim, shadowy forms of big round rocks; and, last of all, the leaves. And all the time, in the sky above and the water below, that first soft, faint glow is deepening into splendor, till the whole earth is filled with the wonder and the glory of it, and at last the great sun himself comes over the treetops and bids you “ Good-morning.”

I’ve been there and seen it all, and I want to go again. I want to hear the gulls scream as they rise in angry clouds from their nests on those rocky reefs, vexed beyond measure at the coming of a stranger, and I want to lie on the old brown wharf again and watch the sunrise.

And fifty miles away in another direction there is another island, where every June a family of young loons is reared. 1 want to go and see how they are getting along this year. There are people who say that a loon’s laugh has a wild and lonesome, and even maniacal, sound. I don’t think so. Not always, at any rate. That particular loon mother has a laugh that seems to me to tell of happy domesticity. I want to make sure that no one is disturbing her housekeeping.

And in still other directions there are the North Shore, and Whitefish Bay, and the Munuskong. I have seen them all, but I want to see them again, and when I am ready to go I shall not want to wait for the wind. And I shall not have to. Instead, I shall go down to the boathouse where the Sudden Sinker is waiting for me, and I shall say, “ Fill up the tank, Elmo, and give me ten gallons extra, and a gallon of cylinder oil, and a can of dope.”

The dope and the oil and the gasoline will be forthcoming. The tents, and the blankets, and the axe, and the kettles, and the frying-pan, and the dishes, and the grub will be tossed aboard, or perhaps stowed in the rowboat that we sometimes take along as a tender. The crew and the passengers — if there are any passengers — will take their places. And now a twist of the switch, a three-quarter turn of the needle valve, a quick throw of the crank,

And we go, go, go away from here;
On the other side the world we ’re overdue.

Or perhaps it is a shorter run. We, too, like our friend of the sailboat, are somewhat given to leaving town for an afternoon and evening; and although we do not carry a chafing-dish, as he does, we often take a frying-pan and porterhouse steak, and find them a pretty good substitute. Somewhere down the Old Channel we go ashore, build our fire, open the lunch-basket, eat our supper, and watch the sun go down, the stars come out, arid the river turn to glass. For, almost without fail, the breeze that has ruffled the water all day dies out with the coming of the night, and leaves it still as a mirror. It is the way with the winds of the Great Lakes. And when the time comes to start for home we should be in a bad fix if we had to depend on sails. Even a white-ash breeze could not help us now, for the current of St. Mary’s is swift and strong, and home is up-stream, not down. But the Sudden Sinker is ready whenever we are, and by and by we touch a match to the headlight and give the crank another throw. It is pretty dark by this time, and the Old Channel is crooked and none too wide, but we hug the Canada shore, preferring to hit a mud-bank rather than a pile of rocks, till presently a pair of red range-lights, glowing like two live coals, come out from behind a point to show us the road.

And let me say rigid here that we are not only going somewhere, but we are having the right sort of a time on the way — such a time as one ought to have when out in a boat at night. Perhaps we sing, and, if we do, the engine never tries to drown us out, but only to play an accompaniment. The Sudden Sinker, by the way, is not as loud as some. Perhaps we talk — a little. Or perhaps we only sit and watch the pageant round us. The summer night is soft and warm, yet often the northern lights come out and play tag along the Canadian hill-tops. The moon rises over Sugar Island, big and round and mellow. Strange shadows steal along the shores, and the water itself is lovelier than a dream. And all the time we are borne swiftly onward up the great river. Strong and sweet and steady comes the “ beat, beat, beat ” of the engine. The white foam flashes out on either side, and the wake boils and swirls away behind. And by and by — sooner, it may be, than we really wish — we round a bend and see the arc-lamps of the city mirrored in the quiet water, the glow of the steel-works against the sky, the lighthouse flashing and fading, and the red, green, and white lights of the steamers passing up and down on their way to Duluth or Buffalo. We are home again.

But at this point I think I hear the voice of him that sitteth in the seat of the scornful, and it says, “Go to! That’s all a bluff! There’s nothing else in all this world that’s quite as uncertain as whether or not a gasoline boat will come home when you want it to.”

Gently, gently, my friend. In the seven years that the Sudden Sinker and I have cruised together we have been towed in twice. Can your sailboat show a cleaner record ? Or, if she can, is it not because you have stayed at home — or have lain motionless in a dead calm, miles and miles away from home — when the Sudden Sinker and I were traveling right along ?

Let us, for a moment, consider the gasoline engine, not merely as a piece of machinery, but in its relation to the development of its owner’s character.

The first season that you live with that engine you never cease to wonder why in Sam Hill you were fool enough to throw away your good money on such a diabolical invention. You realize that the language you sometimes use in addressing the thing is not at all what it should be, and you cannot help but feel that the whole connection is having a distinctly bad effect on your morals. And, of course, it is the engine’s fault. But later, with the growth of knowledge, experience, and understanding, you learn to paraphrase Mr. Kipling’s celebrated piece of advice to the raw recruit of the rifle corps:—

When ’arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
Don’t call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch ;
She’s human as you are — you treat her as sich
And she ’ll fight for the young British soldier.

Among all the creatures of steam and iron and brass ever devised by the mind of man, there is none more human — I had almost said none more feminine — than the gasoline engine. Surely there is none more responsive. You treat her as sich, and she’ll work for the young Yankee yachtsman.

Does she run heavy and logy and slow, now and then missing an explosion altogether ? Very likely you are giving her too much gasoline. If a man can’t do his work properly when he over-eats or overdrinks, what can you expect of an engine ? Shut down a trifle on the needle valve, and see if she does n’t do better. Indigestion is bad for anybody.

Or does she run very fast for a minute or two, and then backfire with a loud re port, spitting blue smoke out of the main bearings, and perhaps coming to a dead stop ? That, also, is probably a very simple matter. She’s getting too little gasoline now, and she’s trying, in the only way she knows, to call your attention to her needs. You can’t be dead sure that that’s the trouble till you’ve tried to remedy it, for I’ve known a weak or defective spark to manifest itself in almost exactly the same way ; but the chances are that if you open the needle valve a little farther she’ll settle down and behave herself.

Does the cylinder over-heat ? Look to the cold-water pump. Perhaps it needs repacking. She must have her cooling drink, and plenty of it, or there’ll be trouble. Or perhaps the oil-cup is n’t feeding properly.

Are the main bearings sticking? Screw down the grease-cups, quick!

Does she stop, for absolutely no apparent reason ? Perhaps there is water in the gasoline feed-pipe. Take it apart and see. It is even possible that the tank is empty, in which case the proper thing to do is to look sheepish.

There is another affliction which is most likely to come upon you when you are a long, long way from home. She stops again, and this time, as you crank her, it strikes you that the induction coil is ominously silent. Slowly and carefully you turn her over till the commutator makes its contact, and let her stand there, but the shrill answering note that you are longing for does not come. You overhaul the battery connections, but find nothing wrong with them. Hoping against hope, you take out the spark plug and examine it, but it is apparently in perfect order. Your heart sinks, for you are pretty sure, now, that you know where the trouble is.

You try to coax the buzzer, but the spark of life is fled ;
For the whole dodgasted battery, in a foreign laud, is dead.

But cheer up. The worst is yet to come, and perhaps we can still stave it off. If you let her rest a little while it is possible that the cells will revive sufficiently to take you into the nearest port. If they don’t, then, like the crew of the Clampherdown, you must go back to first principles. Get out the oars and row. The white-ash breeze is still the stand-by when everything else fails,

As it was in the days of old,
And as it still shall be.

Somehow or other you get ashore, and making a bee-line for the blue signboard of the Western Union Telegraph Company, you wire home for a new battery, to be sent by the first train or steamer. And the next time you go cruising you see that there is an extra set of cells stowed away in the forward locker.

These are but a few of the things that may, and probably will, happen to you. You will never see the end of them, never really get to the bottom of your engine, for she is unfathomable. Time cannot wither, nor custom stale, her infinite variety. No matter how long you live with her, there will always be something more for you to learn. But if you are faithful the day will come, sooner or later, when you will know most of her moods, and when the fact that you do not know quite all of them will only give her an added charm.

For by this time, if you are one of the elect, your engine is neither your tyrant nor your servant, but your friend. Perhaps you do not know just what it means to be friends with an engine. Have you ever gone into a great machine-shop, one where only the best of work is turned out and the best of workmen employed, and noticed the bearing of those men ? Nothing ever hurries or worries or bothers them, and they go about their business with all the unconcern of their biggest lathe or heaviest punch. Not that they are haughty or overbearing. On the contrary, they are very pleasant and hospitable, and if the President of the United States comes to visit the shop they will treat him as if he were just as good as they. But nothing can disturb them, for there is something in the companionship of powerful machinery, with its calm, irresistible strength, that is good for a man’s soul, and by the time he has learned to make one of those huge lathes or punches a part of himself, and with its terrible fingers to tear a block of steel to pieces, something of that strength has become his own. He is a bigger man than he ever was before, and the ordinary difficulties of life are smaller and of less importance. And when you can have the company of a machine which, though a pigmy among engines, is still a giant in power, and which works for you all day and all night and carries you where you will, and at the same time can have the wind and the water and the sky to take not only the cobwebs out of your brain, but the sorrow out of your heart and the meanness and littleness out of your soul — then, what more can a man want ?

Seamanship ? Don’t worry, brother. There are times when it takes a sailor man to run even a gasoline launch, and if you are not content with mill-ponds and inner harbors, but occasionally put out on blue water, the day will surely come when all the seamanship you can muster will be tested to the uttermost.

But I think I hear one more protest. A gasoline engine, you say, is dirty, and noisy, and it smells bad.

Dirty ? Engine-grease is n’t dirt, and though it may now and then get on to one’s fingers, or possibly on to the sandwiches, there are some of us who think it is n’t even misplaced matter.

Smells bad ? Well, as Mr. Pickwick’s manservant would say, that depends on the taste and fancy of the smeller. One day last April I was down on Michigan Avenue, in Chicago, and with me was a girl who has cruised in the Sudden Sinker almost as much as I have. It was cold and raw, with an east wind blowing, and the smoke of the Illinois Central’s locomotives could only help to darken a sky already gray and lowering. But even there we found a reminder of brighter times and lovelier places, for of a sudden a big forty-horsepower automobile went by with a rush and a roar, leaving behind it a broad, pungent trail of blue smoke. No doubt there were many in the crowd to whom its odor was offensive, but the girl’s head went up and she sniffed the air eagerly.

“M — m — m! ” she said. “It smells like the good old summer-time! ”

Noisy ? Ah, no. There you are wholly wrong. Once upon a time there was a boy who used to spend the long summer days on his father’s fishing tug, cruising about Lake Huron. When evening came, and the last net was raised, and the tug was homeward bound, he would watch the sunset and the coming of the stars, and would see the wind die away and the waves lay themselves to rest. And by and by, when the little boy was so tired that he did not know what else to do with himself, he would slip into the pilothouse and curl up on the narrow seat against the wall of the engine-room. The heat of the boiler came pleasantly and drowsily through the thin board partition, and soon the loud puffing and pounding of the engine changed to a long, low, monotonous lullaby. “ Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep,” it seemed to say. And the little boy’s head sank lower and lower, and the voice of the engine became more and more a song, softer and sweeter and farther away, till he followed, followed, far out on a great, broad, golden sea of dreams. It was a long, long time ago, and many things have changed since then. The tug has gone to Davy Jones, and the steam engine has given place to the “ explosion motor.” But the sunset is the same, and the stars, and the moon, and the quiet water, and the touch of the night-breeze; and to-night, as I sit with one hand on the tiller-rope and one ready for the throttle or the reversinglever, listening to my engine and watching the rush of the white foam along the side and the shimmer of the moonlight on the ripples, that steady “ beat, beat, beat ” changes once more to the long, low lullaby of other days, and the years slip away, with all that they have ever brought of care or sorrow or disenchantment, and I am that little boy again.

Lord, send a man like Bobbie Burns, to sing the song of — gasoline !

Come with me, brother, a-cruising in the Sudden Sinker, and we will do you good.