May 27, 2010

Rampant Seagull nostalgia

IF YOU READ the boating bulletin boards regularly, you’ll have noticed that every now and then there’s an eruption of nostalgia for British Seagull outboard motors.

They seem to fall into the category of vintage cult machines, along with MGs, Nortons, and Triumphs. The difference with the Seagull, however, was just how low its low-tech was. Nothing could get lower than a Seagull.

I mean, it could have been made on an anvil by a blacksmith. It ran on an oil/gasoline mixture so rich in oil that you didn’t need a compass to find your way back to port. You just followed your outward oil slick.

The Seagull might well have been invented in the Stone Age, even before they discovered bronze. I took one on a long trip through the canals of Europe once, and it vibrated so much that the gas tank fell off. The spark plug oiled up every 20 minutes or so and stopped working. I became an expert at changing a red-hot plug with a large barge bearing down on me and a Dutch skipper bellowing with rage.

My friend Bernie Borland once went to England to buy a Seagull direct from the manufacturer. The owner of the company was a woman.

“I’d like something in the range of 4 horsepower,” said Bernie.

“What size boat are we talking about?” she asked.

“A Mirror dinghy – about 11 feet.”

“No,” said the woman. “You don’t need 4 horsepower. I won’t sell you one.”

He eventually had to settle for a 2 1/2-hp Seagull. In retrospect he was glad because it fitted across the aft deck, but he never got over the way the Seagull lady did business.

I guess it’s lucky that the British Seagull company policy ensured that their product would never multiply fruitfully and cover the earth, otherwise they would have made British Petroleum look like amateurs in the Gulf of Mexico.

But no matter how much you disrespect the Seagull, there will always be a noisy fringe of people singing its praises. Reasoned criticism runs right off their backs. Seagull nostalgia runs rampant.

Today’s Thought
Machines are worshipped because they are beautiful, and valued because they confer power; they are hated because they are hideous, and loathed because they impose slavery.
— Bertrand Russell, Arms and the Man.

Boater’s Rules of Thumb, #57
In clear weather you can distinguish the shapes of prominent lighthouses, or houses, and trees from about 8 miles away. Individual windows in a building are discernible at about 2 miles. A person at 1 mile is a moving black dot without limbs. The movement of a person’s legs, or a rower’s arms, is discernible at 400 yards. You can make out a face, but not recognize its owner, at 250 to 300 yards.

A Press release from the Washington Legal Aid Society says:
“A new partner recently joined the firm of Button, Button, and Button. His name is Zipper. He replaces two Buttons.”


Aaron Headly said...

From the WIkipedia page:

British Seagull was a British manufacturer of Two stroke outboard engines from the early 1930s until the mid 1990s. The company went out of business due to the motor design not being able to keep up with more modern boat engines and increasingly tight emissions regulations. British Seagull no longer produces new engines but still operates for parts.

Ha! Thanks for warning me.


Aaron Headly said...

I've had some further thoughts on the Seagull phenomenon, and I can see why some people cling to the Seagull dream (even though any two-stroke is a bad idea now-a-days, and any two-stroke that requires more oil than the standard 50:1 mix is an offense to Neptune):

It's all about the reduction gearing Seagull offered. Slow-moving displacement hulls work best when pushed by (relatively) slow turning large diameter low-pitch props, and these props don't need much horsepower to do the job nicely.

My boat displaces four tonnes, and probably only needs four horses to get five knots, and maybe (the originally specified) 9.9 to stay handy in a storm, but to get the right prop and rpm combination it ended up sporting a 25 horse houseboat outboard. It's an unwelcome beast of a motor, actually.

The demise of Seagull as a manufacturer has left an interesting door open. There are plenty of new four-strokes in the small engine market (Honda offers choices all the way down to 1 HP!), and reduction gearing has gotten pretty reliable (and affordable, actually).

Were someone to combine these with some big, low-pitch prop choices, they'd have a very desirable auxiliary on offer.