September 2, 2012

The dreaded British Seagull

I’M STILL RUNNING IN a new outboard motor I bought recently, and every time I pull the starter cord I’m reminded of how much outboard motors have improved over the years.  My Tohatsu 6-hp Sail-Pro single-cylinder four-stroke is not as smooth-running as a silky 1975 6-hp Evinrude twin I once owned but when I compare it with that extraordinary Rube Goldberg device known as the British Seagull, I bless every engineer and designer who contributed in any way to the improvement that is evident on the evolutionary path from Seagull to Sail-Pro.

For those of you lucky enough never to have had the misfortune to own or operate a Seagull, I should explain that it was rudimentary in the extreme —  a single cylinder containing a very sloppy piston, topped by a spinning disc allegedly making electricity for the spark plug.  Tacked on to one side was a simple carburetor.  The float bowl had a small button sticking out of the top that you pressed down with a finger until the whole thing flooded and overflowed with gasoline.  A spreading rainbow sheen on the water around you was your signal to wind the starter cord around the spinning disc on top and pull like mad.

It was a two-stroke, of course, and you had to mix thick, gooey engine oil in with the gasoline so that the clunky bits inside received adequate lubrication.  If I remember right, the ratio of oil to gas was 1 : 25, or about four times as much oil as modern two-strokes used before they were deemed unacceptably polluting.  The Seagull was the ultimate polluting machine.

After you had flooded the carburetor, flicked closed the crude metal slide that served as a choke, and been hit on the back of the neck by the starter cord as it came off the disc on top, there were two ways to tell if the motor had started or not.

The first was a great gurgling roar, a noise fit to wake the dead.  You could hear a Seagull coming from miles away.

The second was a great cloud of blue-white smoke rising from the water astern. That was the exhaust, which consisted of 50 percent burned gasoline and 50 percent lubricating oil just slightly singed by the bronze-age combustion process.  The exhaust added its own smear of oil to the water around the stern, of course, though smear might be too wimpish a word to describe the fearful results of a Seagull’s passage through the water.  It was often said that you couldn’t get lost if you had a Seagull.  You just followed the smoking oil streaks back home.

With that much oil in the gas, the spark plug was bound to oil up and cease functioning every 20 minutes or so. The owners of Seagulls learned to carry spare plugs and they developed heat-proof horny calluses on their finger tips from removing red-hot plugs from the cylinder head.

To be fair, there were some advantages to the Seagull.  It did make other people laugh.  And you could throw it away in a fit of rage without feeling any sorrow.  It made a dandy anchor, with all those bits sticking out.

Today’s Thought
You gentlemen of England
That live at home at ease,
Ah! little do you think upon
The dangers of the seas.
— Martyn Parker

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(29) “Please keep your voice down, sir, or everyone will want one.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


KevinH said...

Hi John, I seem to recall reading that the Seagull was designed and built for the armada of boats that went across the channel to fetch back the troops on armistice day. I do not recall if any ever made the round trip!

Tony M. said...

Good post.